SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - An ambitious plan to build a string of new courthouses in California is budgeted by the central court bureaucracy at a much higher rate for construction costs than anywhere else in the country, according to experts, judges and legislators. "It's an inexcusable waste of taxpayer money," said Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher.
In the heart of California's Gold Country, a new one-room Lake Tahoe courthouse is estimated to cost a baffling $747 per square foot for construction.
In the state's far north, along the Feather River, a three-room courthouse in Plumas County will cost an extraordinary $644 per square foot for construction.
And down at California's southern border, a huge, new courthouse in San Diego is estimated to cost $523 per square foot for construction. The price skyrockets to $900 per square foot when all other costs, such as land, are included.
"That strikes me as absurd," said Dean Dalvit, a Colorado-based architect and engineer. "The courthouse here in Jefferson County, which is referred to by the locals as the Taj Mahal even that building did not exceed $200 per square foot."
He questioned whether the Administrative Office of the Courts, the overarching bureaucracy that handles court rules and finances, is planning to "gold-plate the walls."
Data from RS Means, a company specializing in construction cost estimating, puts its highest construction cost for courthouses at $269 per square foot in New York City. It estimates that a courthouse in San Diego should cost about $195 per square foot, including the cost of union labor an amount that is less than half of the AOC's estimate..
In defense of the construction program, Appellate Justice Brad Hill said, "I think people want projects to go forward but in a prudent manner. And we're going to ensure that."
The cost of the entire court construction program in California is roughly $5.6 billion. That total includes land, environmental studies and furnishings, in addition to construction.
The 41 projects are sprinkled throughout the state. They include new courthouses through much of the Central Valley, in Stockton, Modesto, Merced and Madera, and along the Central Coast in Santa Barbara, Monterey and tiny San Benito County.
The large, populous counties of San Bernardino, Riverside and Los Angeles are on the list for new courthouses, as are a swath of rural and lightly populated counties in the north, in Markleeville, Yuba City, Woodland and Susanville, as well as Yreka and Ukiah in Redwood-rich Mendocino County along the Pacific coast.
The scope and expense of the project has attracted scrutiny, partly because the administrative office's spending practices have repeatedly landed the bureaucrats in hot water over the last year. That criticism has only sharpened when set against the shrinking overall budget for California's courts and for all state projects.
"The AOC and their apologists always seems to have an excuse for exorbitant spending," said retired Los Angeles judge Charles Horan, who has been active in fighting the influence and power of the administrative office. "I firmly believe that only a full-blown outside audit will reveal the truth. The truth can never be extracted from the AOC without great difficulty."
Assemblyman Fletcher said in an interview that he has requested additional accountability committee hearings for the current court construction program, calling the AOC's budget requests "outrageous."