SAN FRANCISCO (CN) The Judicial Council on Monday axed the construction of two new courthouses in Northern California, announced two measures intended to reduce maintenance and construction costs, and put off discussion of a contentious legislative bill that would direct a greater share of the overall court budget to local trial courts.
Because of its crowded agenda, the policy setting body for California’s courts spread this month’s business meeting over both Monday and Tuesday.
In keeping with an overall emphasis on budget pressure, the council voted to ax the planned construction of new courthouses in Alpine and Sierra counties.
Council members said construction costs for the remaining projects would by reduced by 4%, adding that other courthouse construction projects are going forward, including those in Santa Clara, Glenn, Merced, Sonoma, Shasta, Imperial and Tehama counties. A big new courthouse planned for San Diego was not discussed.
Justice Brad Hill also announced that his committee had created a “cost reduction sub-committee” to look at how courthouses might be built for less than the $587 per square foot for which they are currently budgeted on average.
“The name of this committee really says it all,” Hill said. “It’s not the cost review subcommittee, or the cost analysis subcommittee. It’s the courthouse cost reduction subcommittee. That is their mandate and we expect to see significant savings over the coming months and years.”
On the agenda item involving AB 1208 currently pending in the Legislature, the council put off discussion until Tuesday.
The council was expected to vote on whether to continue its opposition to AB 1208, a bill backed by the Alliance of California Judges and intended to give more authority to local courts.
In a letter to Justice Baxter, the Alliance directors urged the council to remain neutral on the bill, a position already taken by the California Judges Association.
In a presentation to the council Monday, Baxter recommended the council oppose the bill, and further discussion is expected before a vote Tuesday.
Responding to public outcry over a list of over 4,000 costly maintenance projects for California’s courthouses, the council also moved to revamp its list of proposed maintenance expenditures
“There are no $2,500 closets being painted, or in the works. There never will be, quite frankly, a $2,500 paint job on a closet,” said Hill, chair of the council’s court facilities committee.
Last year, the state assembly’s accountability committee hauled Bill Vickrey, former director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, and his successor Ron Overholt into a hearing on the exorbitant cost of changing light bulbs, removing gum and painting restrooms at California’s 58 state courthouses.
“We’ve got some significant budget issues in our state,” said Riverside Republican Audra Strickland at the time. “Is it possible we could show better oversight?”
Judges such as Presiding Judge Steve White from Sacramento testified at that hearing that the AOC had spent $8,000 to remove gum from the courthouse walkway. Judge Kent Hamlin of Fresno Superior said an AOC contractor could not fix a toilet in his jury room for less than $500.
After the hearing, the AOC re-bid its maintenance contracts.
But a year later, it issued another report revealing a similar set of costs, including an estimate of $2,500 to paint a closet.
At Monday’s Judicial Council meeting, Hill said the report was being taken out of context, and while “people around this table know exactly what it means,” it nonetheless “gave the impression that perhaps there were such closets being painted.”
That impression has led to undue criticism,” said Hill. “The public deserves a clear and concise list and to that end I’m recommending it be revamped and resubmitted to the Judicial Council.”
Hill’s committee also recommended that the council give local courts more responsibility over the maintenance of their own courthouses.
“If a local court is equipped and willing to handle their own maintenance they should definitely be able to do so,” Hill said.
Justice Marvin Baxter echoed the theme.
“Things that can be done locally without having to engage the bureaucracy of the AOC I think is really important. And it gives the locals a sense of responsibility and authority to handle some of these more routine projects,” he said.
“As to the list that has been misconstrued and has been the result of bad publicity, I really do think that that is a very critical issue,” he said, suggesting that the council should have two lists, one being a wish list of maintenance projects and a second list “that is actually approved renovations or, extensive maintenance or whatever it might be.”