California Courts|Compete for Funding

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A day of tough decisions on the fate of California’s courthouses lasted well into the evening Thursday, and the judiciary’s court facilities working group gave a tentative nod to 16 new courthouse construction projects.
     “I feel like we’re in a Jerry Lewis telethon with the numbers clicking behind us,” said committee Chairman Justice Brad Hill, as the group worked to cut nearly $400 million from the judiciary’s construction program. By the end of the day, the group had cut $358 million.
     The courts that won demonstrated to the committee that they had tried to whittle down costs.
     Fresno Superior Court cut its estimated construction cost from $103 million to $43 million. Committee member Robert Trentacosta, presiding judge of San Diego, said the Fresno court “demonstrated a lot of creativity. What they’re asking for is eminently reasonable.”
     Courts in the counties of Riverside, Nevada, Santa Barbara, Mendocino, Sacramento, Siskiyou, Sonoma, Stanislaus, Tehama, Tuolomne and Lake also received unanimous approval from the working group.
     Other courts were not so lucky.
     Monterey Superior Court requested $40 million to replace what it called an “unsafe and physically deficient” courthouse. But the committee was not persuaded the courthouse needed replacing.
     “We have to be good stewards. It seems to me you have a pretty good courthouse,” said committee member Justice Jeffrey Johnson. “And one flood and one unpaved parking lot, I just don’t see it. I’m just saying, you may not be hearing me clearly. You’ve got a building already.”
     The committee rejected Plumas County’s request to replace its historic 1921 courthouse.
     “The problems are exaggerated. Having visited it, it is close to being ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliant. This to me would be an obscenity,” said Judge William Highberger of Los Angeles. “It would be an absolute disgrace to the taxpayers if we do this.”
     Los Angeles was denied three new courthouses, though the committee voted to approve building a new juvenile courthouse and the first mental health courthouse in the nation.
     The committee on Wednesday asked Los Angeles Court Executive Officer John Clarke to prioritize the requests, but Clarke replied, “We’re going to stand on the position that all six projects are necessary.”
     On Thursday, Clarke asked the committee to approve six projects contingent on the court’s devising a strategy to save the judiciary an additional $48 million.
     The committee did not approve new projects in Glendale or Santa Clarita.
     “It just takes us back to where we were yesterday where we said help us prioritize these buildings, and we got nothing,” Justice Johnson said.
     But Justice Candace Cooper said, “I’m really having difficulty with the demonizing of L.A. for not prioritizing, given the size of the county.”
     Cooper said no other court was tasked with choosing between projects.
     “Were they required to prioritize their projects coming in here yesterday? Or was that someone’s personal request?”
     Justice Johnson, a Los Angeles resident, said he was not demonizing the court.
     “I love all these projects,” Johnson said. “I would love to see L.A. get all these courts, but we have to be stewards of the state. L.A. has more money, more people, and they’re going to come up with more great projects than most other places because they have the population and money to do that. Just because a project is great doesn’t mean we can pass it to the detriment of the smaller counties.”
     Clarke objected to the refusal of money to build a courthouse in Santa Clarita, a fast-growing community Clarke said has a desperate need for court services.
     He said the county had “bent over backwards” to secure the land.
     “This is a courthouse that is critically needed in an area that’s growing,” he said. “I believe it’s bad policy to reject a county offer to provide the property. If this one receives a delay, L.A. has just contributed $182 million – over half of your target. We’re getting to the point where this is inequitable and unfair and unbalanced. We are contributing half the total target that is on the table. It is unfair.”
     Kern County requested two three-room courthouses to serve local prisons. The committee rejected both, citing the high cost of operating regional courthouses.
     “In this current economic climate, these tend toward decentralization; the trend should be one of centralization,” Johnson said.
     Court Executive Officer Stephen Nash, from San Bernardino, disagreed.
     “I think geography is very important. When you’re talking about some of the really large counties it becomes completely unfeasible and completely unfair to assume everything is going to be centralized in one location,” Nash said.
     Some courts complained that the committee based its decisions on cost estimates provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts, the bureaucracy in charge of all courthouse building projects.
     They said those were figures the courts had no part in calculating, and that costs would be significantly reduced if the AOC’s construction office gave them flexibility on building standards.
     “Standards that are talking about size of buildings and size of rooms can be adjusted,” Hill said. “We see in this economic environment we need to change our thinking. These courts may be hamstrung by standards that may be too rigid.”
     The committee will revisit the votes today (Friday), giving at least five more courts some hope that their projects will survive.

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