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.”
“The AOC in general has exuded a reluctance to being subject to oversight,” Fletcher said. “They have demonstrated an inability to manage the people’s money.”
The current AOC director, Ron Overholt, was called before the legislature a year ago to explain to Fletcher’s accountability committee why the administrative office was spending so much for minor courtroom maintenance, like $8,000 for gum removal.
While the court officials were reprimanded at the time, a report issued last month showed that the court administrative office is still spending unusually high amounts on courthouse maintenance, including $2,500 to paint a closet.
Justice Hill, as chairman of the statewide courthouse construction committee, said the overall average cost of building a court in California is $587 per square foot. When presented with the much lower figure from estimating firm RS Means, the justice said the figure probably didn’t consider California’s high levels of pay.
“Prevailing wages are twice as high in California,” Hill argued. The RS Means firm, however, had specifically factored union labor into its estimate.
Hill also pointed to the state’s expensive environmental and earthquake safety laws. “All of this contributes to cost,” he said, adding the point that courthouses are “more sophisticated than regular office buildings.”
Dalvit, the Colorado architect, agreed that building costs in California are indeed high.
“California has quite a reputation among architects and engineers to that effect, but not to that order of magnitude,” Dalvit said. “Across the country, and in Denver, all of our government projects are required to be sustainable projects as part of their government request for a proposal. There is a premium for a highly sustainable building, but it’s a ten percent premium.”
As for earthquake safety, Dalvit said, “Seismic requirements don’t really impact the cost of a structure by more than ten to 20 percent. And if it’s new construction it’s much easier to retrofit.”
He also conceded Hill’s point that courthouses are special buildings.
“Yes there’s truth in courthouses being more sophisticated buildings, but again how can you justify that? It blows me away. If I can build that building in Colorado for $200, I should be able to build that building in California for $220. Unless they’re gold-plating the walls.”
Assembly member Fletcher was just as incredulous
“There’s no way to justify this,” he said, “when New York City can do it for $200. It’s just another in a long line of inexcusable errors by the AOC.”
Fletcher referred to the Court Case Management System, an IT project project that has more lines of computer code than a Boeing 777 and is estimated to cost $1.9 billion when complete. That project has been derided by trial judges who compare it to Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose or a sinking Titanic.
After the CCMS computer project, said the assemblyman, the construction campaign will be brought to the fore for legislative scrutiny.
Legislation introduced by an Assembly member Jeff Gorell (R-Camarillo), now serving in Afghanistan, would have required the court administrative office to comply with the public contract code that regulates executive branch agencies. The courts are now exempt from that code, which requires competing bids and rigorous accountability in spending public money.
Fletcher said he hopes Gorell will re-introduce his bill when he completes his tour of duty in Afghanistan.
In San Diego, where a federal courthouse is now under construction and a state courthouse is planned, Judge Daniel Goldstein said, “It all comes down to issues of governance.”
“For some reason it costs more to build state courthouses over federal courthouses,” he added. Citing an article in the San Diego Union Tribune, Goldstein pointed out that San Diego’s $642 million planned courthouse costs almost twice as much as its federal courthouse, which is projected to cost a total of $368 million.
He also noted that even the enormous price tag of $642 million falls short of the ultimate because, “It doesn’t include the cost of parking or the demolition of the current courthouse.”
“I don’t know where they’re getting their numbers,” Goldstein added. “It comes down to an issue of how well the AOC functions and all the waste that’s in their organization.”
The administrative office has posted two cost estimates for each construction project, on its website. One includes the total cost of the building and a second sets out the portion of that total devoted to construction cost.
“For full transparency, the AOC reports total project budgets, which include far more than construction,” said a statement from the agency. As an example, the $747 figure for the Lake Tahoe courthouse is only the cost of construction. The project’s entire budget is estimated at $1,833 per square foot.
Out of the total of 41 projects, 5 are courthouse renovations and 36 are new courthouses.
The AOC has classified 25 of the projects as “immediate need” projects, a higher priority than the 16 designated as “critical need.” While all of the courthouse were funded by the Legislature as part of SB 1407 passed three years ago, in a different fiscal era, Justice Hill’s committee still needs to decide which ones are financially feasible.
“We are going to be looking at each project individually and the program collectively,” Hill said. “That might include eliminating a project or saying that all projects need to be ratcheted down in size and scope.”
The county courthouse in Fresno, the district where Hill sits on the appellate bench, is literally falling apart, he said. “If something falls ten stories and hits someone I don’t think people will say we’re glad you waited to fix this.”
San Diego’s courthouse is listed as lower priority project, although it is widely thought that the courthouse will be built. Trial judges have long accused the AOC of doling out funds with politics in mind, rewarding courts that are loyal to the central bureaucracy.
The state court in San Diego, and its clerk in particular, have such a reputation.
Construction projects are generally favored by politicians as a boon to the community and a source of jobs. Despite his criticism of the overall court construction project in California, Fletcher, a Republican who represents San Diego, supports construction of a new courthouse in San Diego.
“The existing courthouse is not safe, and it’s vitally needed,” he said. “But we can build it at a cost that’s fair to the taxpayers. We could have had it many times over if it wasn’t being administered and run by the AOC.”