SACRAMENTO (CN) – Unusually high payments to contractors for courthouse upkeep and repairs caught the attention of legislators looking into spending by the California judiciary’s administrative arm, including $14,000 to paint a single restroom, $2,600 to replace five smoke detectors and $149 for one worker to escort another through a courthouse.
The expenditures were among many listed on a 98-page report from the Administrative Office of the Courts. The leaders of that agency were grilled last week by legislators on the Assembly Committee on Accountability.
“We’ve got some significant budget issues in our state,” said Vice-Chair Audra Strickland (R) – Riverside. “Is it possible we could show better oversight?”
AOC Director William Vickrey argued that inadequate billing codes most likely led to the AOC being over-billed for the most basic of services. Last year, the AOC spent $104 million on routine courthouse operations and maintenance.
The AOC currently contracts with Jacobs Facilities Inc. for Southern and Central California courthouses and Aleut Global Solutions for courthouses in Northern California. Almost all facilities issues in California courthouses must first be reported to an AOC call center, which notifies one of the companies to handle it. The AOC authorizes charges of up to $500 for routine maintenance jobs.
The AOC receives monthly invoices from Jacobs and Aleut tallying the charges, but Vickrey said the bills rarely break down in such detail that the AOC can itemize the costs. “I feel like I’m caught at times in a world where you can’t succeed,” Vickrey told the committee.
The AOC authorizes charges of up to $500 for routine maintenance jobs. Lee Willoughby, Director of Court Construction and Management for the AOC, said charges for small items are not detailed on the lump-sum bills that courts receive.
Assembly member Nathan Fletcher (R) – San Diego objected to a reported $2,600 to replace five smoke detectors in an Imperial County courthouse. “Can you please explain that to me, because it usually costs $12 for a really nice one,” he said.
“I’ll admit that looks unusual,” said Willoughby. “But some times it takes more than that, for example, if the smoke detector is in a high atrium, it may require a lift.”
“Or a ladder,” said Fletcher. “There’s an importance to oversight and rigorous transparency. A lot of us are making a lot of difficult cuts everyday. We’re cutting education for children. So it’s important for us to ask why we’re spending $2,600 on smoke detectors.”
Presiding Judge Steve White from Sacramento Superior said he never would have ordered the sidewalk entrance to his courthouse to be sand-blasted last year to avoid trip and falls if had known the AOC would end up spending $8,000 to remove gum from the walkway as well.
“If I had known that cost I wouldn’t have requested it. I would have put out signs and yellow cones instead,” said White, adding that he had never asked the AOC to remove the gum. “The gum might have slowed down the trip and falls,” he joked.
Judge Kent Hamlin of Fresno Superior said women jurors in his court were forced walk past prisoners in order to use the public restroom because the AOC’s contractor could not fix the toilet in his jury room for less than $500. “To pay these service providers what we’re paying is not an efficient use of government funds,” he said.
Vickrey assured the committee that the AOC would be re-bidding its maintenance contracts in the fall and Willoughby said, “In the future we will provide better oversight.”
Strickland urged the AOC to prioritize its upkeep issues to ensure that only the most practical facilities concerns were addressed, not aesthetics.
“There are charges in here for emptying trash cans and ash trays. These are things we should be able to catch,” said Strickland. “There are courtrooms being forced to close one day a month. It seems to me that these could be less of a priority to ensure that someone gets a little more justice.”