Courthouse Building Projects Put on Hold

     (CN) - In a blow to trial courts up and down the state, California's judiciary has frozen more than 20 pending courthouse construction projects.
     Justice Brad Hill broke the news in an email Monday, saying the group will convene next week to reassess projects they approved only months ago.
     Hill, who heads the committee overseeing courthouse construction, said the council came up short on money expected from the state's General Fund to finance a new courthouse in Long Beach, and is being forced to draw from projects funded under SB 1407.
     "All indications are that there will not be General Fund dollars available next year to pay for the Governor George Deukmejian Courthouse," he wrote, adding that the council had been lobbying to keep the Long Beach courthouse away from SB 1407, a law designating judicial branch revenues for $5 billion in construction bonds for new courthouses.
     "We are, unfortunately, left with only one alternative under this scenario. SB 1407 funds must bear the burden of the Long Beach payments. Until we receive an appropriation to fund Long Beach payments, we cannot proceed on upwards of $600 million in planned SB 1407 projects. The branch has a responsibility to move forward with only the projects that we can afford. This, I know, is devastating news," Hill wrote.
     "Ultimately the Judicial Council will need to decide which projects must be indefinitely delayed to accommodate funding the new courthouse in Long Beach out of SB 1407 funds," he said.
     The $490 million Long Beach courthouse is being paid for by a private group of builders, architects and financiers, and will be leased to the state at a cost of roughly $50 million per year when it opens in August 2013.
     The 35-year pact between the private Long Beach Judicial Partners and the Administrative Office of the Courts was criticized recently by the Legislative Analyst in a report that found the taxpayers would overpay $160 million under the contract.
     The anlayst said the project was based on assumptions that steered the deal towards the private partners. In exchange for a building that costs $490 million plus maintenance, California was expected to pay $2.3 billion over time.
     Hill's news follows 22 hours of public committee deliberations that resulted in seven projects being indefinitely halted and $500 million in cuts from the remaining 23 projects allowed to go foward and currently in various stages of plannning, from site acquisition to design. The most costly of these projects is a new 71-courtroom facility in downtown San Diego. Its authorized budget currently stands at about $620 million, but an AOC disclaimer says cost estimates are subject to change.
     By next week, even more projects could be put on ice indefinitely or see their budgets cut dramatically, as the committee needs to find another $600 million in cuts.
     Presiding Judge Laurie Earl in Sacramento said her court won approval months ago for $10 million to purchase land for a new courthouse. The latest news out of Hill's committee could jeopardize the deal with the seller.
     "There is frustration and fear that if we cannot give them the money that all bets are off," said. "We thought we'd be breaking ground on our project by next Spring."
     Earl said the news is even worse for other courts. "There are other projects that need money to move forward that probably won't see any money. And that's just pushing things farther down the road."
     In an interview late Tuesday, Hill said the committee members are currently going through thousands of pages of documents in preparation for its meeting on December 13, where it will start the review process all over again. "We're hopeful we can still get some General Fund money, but we just never know and we have to plan. If we go full speed ahead with these projects we'll be in a lot of trouble," he said.