Californians Get First Look at Revamped Priorities for Courthouse Construction

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The Judicial Council of California released revamped priorities for 80 courthouse construction and renovation projects across California on Thursday, a move sure to draw both congratulations and criticism depending on where courts fall on the list.

The seal of the Judicial Council of California, the policymaking body of the California courts. (Photo the Judicial Council of California via YouTube)

Construction funding has been a fraught topic for courts for decades. In 2008, lawmakers authorized $5 billion to build or renovate courthouses in 32 counties across California but raided $1.6 billion from the fund during the last recession. Despite the funding crunch, 29 new courthouses have been built since the judiciary took over courthouse construction and maintenance in 2002.

At the same time, the council was blasted for allowing extremely costly construction projects to move forward, specifically its agreement to pay developers a $61 million annual service fee to maintain a new courthouse in Long Beach – a 35-year deal the Legislative Analyst’s Office said could add up to $2.3 billion.

With the bulk of the construction budget going to pay off Long Beach, funding for other planned projects dried up and were indefinitely delayed. By 2017, a state audit of the construction program seemed imminent, though nothing ultimately came of it.

In 2018, legislators agreed to fund 10 new projects with General Fund dollars while bringing the program under legislative oversight. Now all new projects must get legislative approval before moving forward.

Any future money also depends on the council updating the method for ranking planned courthouse projects and choosing which courthouses will be built next.

“That’s certainly a reasonable request,” said Justice Brad Hill, chair of the council’s Courthouse Facilities Advisory Committee, at its meeting Thursday. “We have literally scores of courthouses in dire need of replacement, but an update to a methodology is always helpful and we’re happy to do it.

But, he added, “It’s always brought with the potential for numerous minefields. Courts have been planning their courthouse projects for years. They have been relying on the previous assessment and rankings for years. Now they have been told by the Legislature, and in turn us, that there has been a re-evaluation and the angst they are feeling is certainly justifiable.”

According to the council, 41 courts have proposed 80 projects. Of that number, 56 are new buildings and 24 are renovations or additions. The total cost is $13.7 billion.

“We intend to build all 80,” said retired Judge Steven Jahr. He reminded the group where they were a little over year ago.

“Fourteen months ago, our courthouse construction program funded by fees and penalty assessments was tapped out,” he said.

The new list prioritizes courthouses using criteria like seismic threats, overcrowding, disabled access and fire safety.

Led by the facilities director Mike Courtney, council staff spent almost a year reviewing 213 buildings and calculating the cost of either new construction or renovation based on the most recent 19 courthouse construction projects already completed.

The courts were ranked in order of “Immediate” to “Low” need, with the categories “Critical,” “High,” and “Medium” falling in between.

Courts in Lake, San Bernardino, Kern and San Joaquin counties were found to have an immediate need and were chosen to have their projects funded first. Those courts are in the towns of Lakeport, San Bernardino, Ridgecrest and Tracy.

Courts in San Francisco, Fresno, Tulare, Sonoma, Nevada, Placer, Contra Costa, Orange, San Diego, Los Angeles, Alameda and Riverside were put in the “critical” or “high need” category.

Other courts were deemed mid-to low priority, including 10 proposed projects in Los Angeles and two in Santa Clara, though seven were also ranked as high need.

Allen Leslein, facilities director for Los Angeles county, told the committee that he appreciated the council staff’s work but had issues with the methodology for scoring and ranking projects.

Los Angeles is the biggest trial court in the country, serving more than 10 million people. “With this size and uniqueness comes a number of challenges that cannot be captured in the scoring methodology,” he said.

For one thing, the council staff evaluated individual facilities over ranking them together.

“We have 40 courthouses. All of these have inter-related caseloads, they serve constituencies that are overlapping, they have overlapping geographical areas. So you cannot deal with any one of these in isolation. Many of our projects propose addressing multiple buildings, and because of this the ranking is diluted and the scores are downgraded,” he said.

The committee’s draft report will be posted for public comment until Sept. 13, and it will be put to a vote on Oct. 1.

“To those who may ultimately go up in the rankings, those folks will be happy and will think we’ve done a brilliant job,” Hill said. “For those who perhaps go down in the rankings, something is amiss and we did not quite fill our responsibilities.”

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