SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California’s governing council for the courts voted unanimously Monday to “reassess” the cost of building 13 new courthouses, a move intended to save the cash-strapped judiciary $1.1 billion.
“Many tough and often untenable choices have to be made and they have to be made now,” said Justice Brad Hill, chair of the court construction committee that made the proposal to the Judicial Council.
Judge David Lampe from Kern County raised the ghost of the council’s failed IT project in urging the council to suspend any more spending on construction until Governor Jerry Brown Jr. submits next year’s budget in May.
The council’s decision to reconsider the construction projects comes on the heels of a report from the Legislative Analyst calling for the judiciary to either delay or cancel a number of those projects.
“It’s a new day,” Hill told the council. “A new economic climate. Business as usual is no longer the order of the day now, and it can’t be at any point in the future. In this economic crisis, with no end in sight, it simply can’t be. While we proceed with the most critically needed courthouses that we intend to move forward with, we need to take a very close look at every project to determine that when we’re able to build them, they’re built efficiently and very economically. And if they can’t be built economically, they shouldn’t be built. They should be cancelled. Pure and simple.”
Hill’s group formed the Courthouse Cost Reduction Subcommittee late last year to look out how courthouses might be built for more reasonable costs, around the time the judiciary was facing scrutiny from the Legislature for spending enormous sums on both IT and construction.
At Monday’s council meeting, Hill stressed the need to spend tax payer money wisely. But, he added, “We will need to be ready to explain to the public why we have taken this approach. If indeed there’s a security breach caused by inadequate facilities resulting in injuries or death to the public, or court staff, we need to have an explanation. Or if there’s an earthquake that pancakes one of our seismically insufficient buildings, we have to have a good explanation for why we made these decisions today or in the future.”
The 13 projects include courthouses in Los Angeles, Riverside, El Centro and Inyo counties in the south, to Kern County in Central California, to Mendocino and Nevada County in the North. The council accepted the committee’s recommendation to look at how reduce building size and cost, and renovating or leasing buildings instead of building new ones.
A slew of 24 planned courthouses will go forward, but are expected to be built for two to ten percent under budget.
But there remains the problem of maintaining the courthouses once they are built.
Judge David Wesley of Los Angeles raised that concern before the vote. “Can we maintain all these new courthouses that we’re constructing? To maintain them once we build them?” he asked “Do we have a budget for janitorial services that is commensurate with the building program, do we have a budget with security, do we have a budget for furniture? Or are we going to build courthouses that we can’t staff with security, put furniture in, or maintain in the future?”
Hill replied, “I agree that we need to make sure we have maintenance budgets that cannot only take care of our existing facilities, but new facilities. And one of the ways that we can do that, hopefully, is if we save considerable sums of money over the coming years in the building program. And you indicated you would like to see some of that money in maintenance and we will make every attempt to do so and make those recommendations to you.”
Judge David Lampe of Kern County Superior Court, a director of the Alliance of California Judges, urged the council during a public comment period to reconsider going forward with new courthouses the judiciary can’t afford, at least until Governor Jerry Brown releases his revised budget in May.
“We do not minimize the state of disrepair and inadequacy in many state courthouses,” Lampe said. “What we’re urging those that at this time we must preserve maximum flexibility, and we should not encumber or commit funds now without knowing the total budget picture.”
Lampe also called for the council to bring in an outside investigator to reassess the building projects.
“The reported high cost of construction have met with skepticism from judges, legislators and the public,” he said, adding that the judiciary did not want its construction project to come under the same scrutiny as its Court Case Management System, a court IT project recently cancelled by the council, but not after over a half billion dollars was spent on it.
“We all have acknowledged that there were mistakes made with the CCMS project, including the lack of early cost benefit analysis. And those mistakes caused an excoriating report by the auditor. No one wants to look back at similar criticisms of our construction management,” Lampe said.
“It would be helpful to have an independent consultant look at the program. We are doing that now,” Hill said. “We are engaged in a top to bottom review of Office of Court Construction and Management, and we will a report to you by the end of the year as to their findings and any recommendations that we have.”
The council also voted 14-2 to give El Dorado Superior Court a bailout of $169,000 for the next two fiscal years to meet security costs at its remodeled juvenile court. Presiding Judge Suzanne Kingsbury said it made her “uncomfortable” to beg for money from the council, but the court was left in a lurch after it did not receive money promised by the council and its staff agency, the Administrative Office of the Courts. Kingsbury said her discomfort stems from her position on the Strategic Evaluation Committee, a group appointed by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye to review the AOC.
“This is difficult for be being on the SEC to come to you and beg for money. It makes me really uncomfortable to come and beg for money to run our court because I know there are people out there in the world thinking if you give money it’s because it’s my role on the SEC. You have no idea how uncomfortable this makes me. And the impact on the court- it is significant. It is very, very troubling for me to do this,” Kingsbury said. “And I think it’s troubling to have a council make representations and the AOC make representations and renege on those.”