SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – In tough times, California’s central court bureaucracy wants to pay $2,500 to paint a closet. Actually a pair of closets, each at that price. Nice work if you can get it, say critical judges, when trial courts are laying off staff.
The Administrative Office of the Courts has already run into trouble with the Legislature over its spending ways, in a hearing earlier this year where legislators questioned the seemingly exorbitant cost to remove bubble gum and change smoke detectors.
A recent and voluminous report on proposed expenditures was dropped on the members of the Judicial Council late last month without comment, in a meeting eaten up, as it happens, by discussion of the legislature’s $350 million cut to overall court funding.
Included in the report’s list of projects, for example, is a $210,500 item to pave over a dirt parking lot in San Diego.
“I was concerned that we were going to spend $210,500 on a lot that we did not own, were never going to own, and on which we had only a month-to-month tenancy,” San Diego Judge Runston Maino wrote in a letter to several judges on the council’s construction committee.
The closets and the parking lot are among more than four thousand “necessary” statewide repairs requested by the administrative office in the 213-page report.
“I was then told that this report was only a ‘wish list’ and did not represent what they were going to spend but only what they wished to spend,” Maino continued. “My retort was that why would the AOC wish for something that they should not do.”
The report lists repairs deemed “necessary, but not yet critical,” and they include $21,500 to replace light bulbs in the parking lot at a Los Angeles courthouse.
One figure $51,999 is slapped on each of a widely different set of projects: resealing a parking lot in Amador, an “ergonomic review” of benches in each of the three courtrooms in Amador and repair of a walkway and broken planters outside the courthouse in Modesto.
The very same figure, $51,999, is estimated for new ladders in Sutter.
Removal of graffiti outside courtrooms in San Mateo is proposed for $55,000. According to the report, a men’s restroom in Solano also requires $11,000 to “upgrade the appearance and dignity of the property.”
Patrick McGrath of the AOC’s construction office said the process for estimating repairs starts when somebody at a court building says something is broken.
“At that point we send out either the current wrench-turning service provider or we send out a team of engineers to go investigate that particular project and make sure we understand all the ramifications of the project and then an official cost estimate is developed for that work,” said McGrath.
All of the items on the list are still awaiting approval, noted AOC spokesperson Teresa Ruano. “It’s certainly well beyond what we can do this year,” she said. “We only have $30 million to work with.”
In his letter, Maino took issue with several other high-cost items, including re-painting two closets in two judge’s chambers in Santa Clara, at a cost of $2,500 each, $7,000 for landscaping work at the Santa Clara courthouse, and for landscaping in Solano, $7,750.
“I cannot resist giving you information about item 146,” said Maino. “The Alameda Superior Court would like the taxpayer to spend $4,500, pending funding approval, to remove dead branches from a dead tree. Yes, you read that correctly: dead branches from a dead tree.”
“When I read this,” said the judge, “I thought of Dave Barry’s comment when he said that ‘A sense of humor is a measurement of the extent to which we realize that we are trapped in a world almost totally devoid of reason.'”
The report also lists the “enhancement” of a judge’s courtyard in Santa Clara as relatively high-priority. Although off-limits to the public, it will cost $7,000 to make it nicer.
I think it’s an outrage,” Maino said in an interview. “The public doesn’t get to use it. It doesn’t mean the courts stay open because you have it. A project like that shouldn’t even be considered by the Santa Clara court.”
The AOC considers this project a priority-level three, which it defines as impacting “the dignity of the court to a level that its correction will improve court operations and provide minimal maintenance standards.”
Expenditures such as these appalled legislators last year, where the California assembly’s Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review took AOC bureaucrats to task on a similar report that listed $8,000 to remove gum from the sidewalk outside the Sacramento courthouse.
Maino said he thinks the new project list will likely catch the legislature’s attention yet again.
“Local legislators will look at this thing and find out what the heck is being spent for their local court and think holy mackerel,” he said. “We’re out of money for this kind of silliness.”
A series of spending decisions by the San Francisco-based Administrative Office of the Courts have been questioned by legislators and trial judges alike.
They range from the decision late last year, in a meeting chaired by the incoming chief justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, to give retroactive pay raises to most of the AOC’s bureaucracy, down to relatively minor spending on electronic gadgets such as ipads for select staff and judges.
The questioned decisions include the practice of hiring temp workers, many paid more than $100,000 a year, and the award of a gold-plated pension plan to the top 30 officials giving a 22% full ride from public funds on top of high salaries.
Overlaying those decisions are frequent problems tied to accounting for funds spent or projected to be spent, with the greatest controversy reserved for an IT project that is predicted to cost $1.9 billion and continues to drain millions from the coffers of the courts.
On Monday, Maino received a response to his letter from Justice Brad Hill, a member of the council’s courthouse construction committee. “As you can imagine, there is a great deal we have to do in a very short period of time,” he said. “Items like this deserve our attention. We will defer any recommendations as to who should be responsible for maintenance and/or modifications until we can evaluate all options including having the local courts being responsible to a far greater degree for such projects.”
Maino said simply, “It does not matter if the AOC does the spending or the local courts do the spending. It is all taxpayer money and needs to be spent very carefully.”