New Courthouses in Calif. Halted by Money Woes

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — California’s Judicial Council on Friday voted to postpone building 17 new courthouses, nearly all of them in rural counties with current facilities in a shocking state of deterioration and disrepair.
     “We’re out of money, and there’s nothing we can do short of getting that money back,” said Justice Brad Hill, chair of the council’s construction committee. The committee heard testimony from the presiding judges and head clerks of all 17 affected counties earlier this month, and on Friday, Hill presented the committee’s recommendation to delay the projects to the full Judicial Council.
     The decision means holding projects in El Dorado, Inyo, Los Angeles and Mendocino counties after completing site acquisition.
     Projects in Riverside, Sacramento, Sonoma, Stanislaus, Lake, Santa Barbara and the Los Angeles mental health court will hold after completing preliminary design. Courthouses in Siskiyou, Imperial, Riverside, Shasta, Tuolumne and Glenn counties were scheduled to start construction this year, but will also be delayed.
     Siskiyou’s project was scheduled to break ground in June when the court learned of the shortfall in the judiciary’s Immediate and Critical Needs Account, which funds courthouse construction through fines and fees. That revenue has fallen off in recent years, and the funding shortage has been exacerbated by Gov. Jerry Brown’s temporary “traffic amnesty” program that reduces fines for unpaid traffic tickets.
     During the recession, money from the judiciary’s capital program helped keep the trial courts open. But over time, the Legislature and the governor redirected $1.4 billion from that fund to the state’s general fund.
     “We saw that they became loans and when things hadn’t turned around and the recession was getting deeper, then the loans turned into basically not loans because the entire state was in trouble. But we also, at that time, were quite alarmed and we fought it. We fought because we knew this day would come,” said Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. “It is not as if it surprised us. We knew it was threatened. We also didn’t see in the future was that filings would just decline rapidly and we didn’t see amnesty. So we didn’t see the coming return of the fines and fees that compose the construction fund.”
     She added, “We find ourselves now in a place where the money has not returned, and we find ourselves in a factually different place where the filings are gone and the amnesty has changed our pocketbook.”
     Butte County Commissioner David Gunn, also a member of the Judicial Council, said he has visited the Siskiyou court as a council liaison. On Friday, he relayed the dismal state of its current courthouse to the council.
     “There is nothing like climbing up the stairs, and I mean climbing, not walking. It’s like walking up a ladder. If you can manage the in-custodys shackled trying to get up there, it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen,” he said.
     To illustrate the woefully inadequate security, Gunn pointed to a recent $3 million robbery of historic gold from the court’s display case. The burglary was pulled off, as he put it, by “two yahoos” who merely broke and climbed through an unsecured window.
     He also noted several Siskiyou County residents who gave up their houses to make space for the now indefinitely delayed courthouse project: a widow who donated the house her husband had built her as a wedding present, and a young couple who gave up the home where there first child was born.
     Gunn urged the council to do “whatever we can do to get funds to restore these projects.”
     He added, “It is really an embarrassment to walk up to a courthouse and see an elevator sign on the front door that says go around to the back. And when you go around the back, it is not working. How do people get up to the courthouse? Do they get carried up the stairs or crawl up the stairs? It is an embarrassment to go up there and see some of these things.”
     Presiding Judge Dean Stout, who spoke on behalf of Inyo County at the construction committee’s Aug. 11 meeting, said the council’s credibility with the public is at stake when it approves new courthouses without having the funds to see them through to completion.
     “Communities are disappointed. Our credibility, in a sense, is out there. Communities spent not only a tremendous amount of money but certain residents had to relocate to make space for our court facilities,” Stout, also a Judicial Council member, said.
     “We are facing a huge disappointment in many of our communities and anything we can do to minimize the effect of that in the short term here, I think we really have to be creative about,” he added. “I also think it’s very critical at this time that we have a concerted effort to reach out to our colleagues in the other branches, to restore the $1.4 billion or at least otherwise find funding and a stable revenue stream to address these critical needs.”
     Along with accepting the construction committee’s recommendation to delay the projects, the council approved the allocation of $65 million set aside by the Legislature this year to repair and maintain and the state’s existing courthouses.
     In a presentation to the council on some of the state’s most critical maintenance needs, Judge William Highberger of Los Angeles noted the aged elevator system in Los Angeles County’s Stanley Mosk Courthouse. He joked that the elevators, installed in 1956, are about celebrate their diamond jubilee — “a good thing if you’re Queen Elizabeth II, but not a good thing for your elevator systems.”
     Highberger showed the council a photograph of the elevator’s mechanisms, where a matchbook from 1967 was being used to keep contractors from touching and causing an electrical shortage. He said these are the sorts of things the judiciary should focus on fixing.
     “Mosk is not a courthouse that we plan to replace. This is one that we plan to use for another 50 years. It is 60 years old now and we have another 50 years to go.”

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