SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The building of more than a dozen new California courthouses is in limbo after a Judicial Council committee on construction — acknowledging a funding crisis — voted to put 17 projects on hold Thursday.
"I think there's not a clearer, more intelligent way to proceed at this juncture in my view. It's really our only option," said Justice Jeffrey Johnson, a member of the council's Courthouse Facilities Advisory Committee.
The decision came after five hours of impassioned testimony from judges and court clerks representing 16 counties desperate to replace their aging and in some cases dangerous facilities.
Siskiyou County's planned Yreka courthouse is the most shovel-ready of the group, having already signed a contract with McCarthy Construction. The 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. McCarthy's bid expires on Aug. 19.
"Everything about this project cries out for completion and that's what's so tragic about this funding problem," committee chair Justice Brad Hill said. "We're going to fight with every breath we have to make sure this courthouse is built."
But his words were cold comfort for the court.
"We're terribly disappointed," Siskiyou County Presiding Judge William B. Davis said after the meeting. "We thought we had the best chance."
He added, "The tragedy is that the funds that were swept by the governor and legislature have not been returned. We're concerned that costs will be higher when we try to renew this project."
Grace Bennett, chair of the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors, had tears in her eyes. "It's just not right," she said, shaking her head. "It's a kick in the stomach to hear this happen."
At the starting of the meeting, Hill told the judges he planned to meet with lawmakers in Sacramento to ask for help.
"It's a tough message to have to give, but obviously what we want to do is keep everything on life support because this program has to survive. My theme for today is this is day one of our effort to get the money to make this program successful."
He said the governor and Legislature swept $1.4 billion from the judiciary's construction coffers during the state's recession, resulting in today's funding shortage. The fund recently helped pay for a $490 million courthouse in Long Beach.
And while the fine and fee revenue on which the construction fund relies was stable when it was established in 2008, projections have fallen drastically in recent years.
"Then amnesty came along and the revenues started going off a cliff," Hill said, referring to Gov. Jerry Brown's temporary program that reduces fines for unpaid traffic tickets.
"Now that the state is back on firm footing and essentially back on track, we'd like our money back. We don't think it's a difficult thing to ask for, because it's our money. It was generated through fines and fees. It was designated to rebuild courthouses and we feel it's perfectly appropriate, since we helped out during the state's time of need, to remind the other branches of government that because of that redirection of our funds, that we need our money back," he said.