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Senator Grills Court Bureaucrats|on Fee Hikes and $2 Billion Project

(CN) - Senate budget subcommittee chair Loni Hancock on Thursday took issue with a $10 fee the courts' administrative office wants to assess for every public file request, and questioned why the courts' central bureaucracy is trying to push higher fees on the public while also spending $2 billion on a new courthouse in Long Beach.

"If there were high fees for an investigative reporter the Watergate scandal may never have been revealed," said Hancock, a Democratic senator from Oakland. "Piecemeal fee increases can add up to a real lack of access for reporters, for low income and middle income people as they seek our justice system."

The fees have been called "efficiencies," by the bureaucrats from the administrative office, and the senator poked fun at the obfuscation.

"Now we're saying `efficiencies' when what we mean is, 'We're increasing fees and cutting services'," she added in an interview. "It's very important that we have transparency in government and I'm just saying what we're talking about."

Hancock, added that the administrative office, that often promises transparency, appears to be working against transparency in government.

"So in the interest of transparency in a democracy as well as access to justice for all people, it's of great concern to me to increase those fees," she said. "Ten dollars for each name is quite a lot and there were also some duplication fees, a dollar a page. Given the size of filings that can be prohibitively expensive."

Michelle Castro with the Service Employees International Union said her union is also concerned about higher fees.

"We want to make sure that public records are easily accessible to taxpayers and those fees aren't so prohibitive that only those who have money can have access to them," she said. "It's just a bad direction we're going in. It doesn't seem right to cheapen the quality of services the public gets because of budget cuts."

She added that the judiciary should look at efficiencies that "make sense," suggesting that courts may want to look at the ratio of managers to court employees.

Hancock did agree with the argument put forward by most judges and bureaucrats in the judiciary, that the legislature needs to reconsider the amount it is willing to fund the courts.

"Watching what is happening to our justice system is a major concern," she said. "The judiciary is literally the third branch of our constitutional democracy and it's being whittled away fee by fee, courtroom by courtroom. We used to spend considerably more money on our courts and we need to get back to a level of funding that's adequate."

In the morning on Thursday, her committee heard arguments from lobbyists from the courts' central administrative office pushing for new fines, fees and service cuts that are currently included in trailer bills attached to the 2013-14 budget.

The administrative office's director, Steven Jahr, cast the courts' plight in Dickensian terms. "The fact of the matter is a person who is starving will eat rotten food rather than starve to death," he said.

Hancock chuckled when Jahr referred to the increased fees on the public as "efficiencies."

"We're talking about cuts here, so yeah, 'efficiencies,' " she said with irony.


Andi Liebenbaum with the lobbying arm of the administrative office said the old search fee, that charged only for a search that took more than ten minutes, was too hard to enforce. "A number of courts have said it's hard to determine when you hit that stop watch for 10 minutes," she said. "Some courts have said what if our clerks are slow or the person walking to get the record gets interrupted?"

Senator Curren Price Jr., a Democrat from Los Angeles, said the administrators are levying more and more fees with less and less success.

"I just want to also express my concern about the way things are going," he said. "It is troubling and I don't know how we provide funding, I'm interested in the ideas, obviously increasing fees is a diminishing success. You're putting more fees on a smaller group."

Questions on $2 Billion Expense

The hearing room heated up as the discussion turned to the $2 billion courthouse the administrators are building in Long Beach.

Hancock grilled Curt Child, the administrative office's chief operating officer, over the hefty price tag on the building, projected to shoot into the billions over 35 years. Her questioning came against the backdrop of a report last year from the Legislative Analyst's Office, finding that the project was based on a series of overly positive assumptions that favored partnership with a private group and extended payments to that private group for years to come.

"This is going to be quite expensive," said Hancock. "The Legislative Analyst's Office raised specific issues over criteria being used toward the contract and unsubstantiated assumptions being made about the cost of doing it as a public-private partnership. And it turned out the LAO's assumptions were correct. The project is going to cost considerably more than was expected. My question for the AOC is, how did you let this happen?"

Child replied, "I'm not sure we would agree with the assumptions you've made, because this was a process -- after there was the authorization in the legislation -- an extensive procurement and preparement."

"This was measured entirely against the value for our money," Child said. "You have to keep in mind about this contract that is not just a construction contract. It was a design, bid, build, maintain and operate for 35 years."

"$2.3 billion over the life the contract," Hancock said.

"Certainly there's a life beyond that for the building," said Child.

"For the Department of Finance, at the time that you approved the Long Beach project, did the DOF have anyone on staff that had experience in assessing these projects?" Hancock asked.

"I don't think we had someone with particular experience," said Brian Dewey with the governor's Department of Finance.

"We did have some outside counsel and analysts assist with review," another department bureaucrat interjected.

"Can you tell me their names?" Hancock asked.

Hancock asked the department to draft trailer bill language in line with the LAO's report, saying, "We really can't be careless with public dollars in this situation."

Hancock said post-hearing that her research on the construction project yielded disturbing conclusions.

"There are memos questioning this project going back to 2008," she said. "The LAO believed that objective criteria were being inserted into the request for proposals and that assumptions were being skewed in a way that was not based on data to try and show that a public-private partnership would be less expensive."

"Up to and including just a few days before the final bid was awarded, there were addendums adjusting financial formulas in various ways because previously the public option turned out to be less expensive," she said.

Hancock noted that the project was pushed by the previous AOC administration, but said, "The AOC ought to embrace what I've requested, which is trailer bill language making sure this never happens again."

One of the many questions about the project is the central matter of where the funding will come from.

The Judicial Council contends that lawmakers promised assistance from the General Fund, rather than from SB 1407, legislation that established a separate source of funding for courthouse construction projects. In December last year, the fateful announcement came that the Long Beach courthouse would have to be funded through SB 1407 and as a result, four more new planned courthouses in Fresno, Los Angeles, Nevada County and Sacramento would be "delayed indefinitely."

"It was never intended that the General Fund should pay for it," Hancock said Thursday. "It's turning out to be hundreds of millions of dollars, more costly at a time when there are four other communities that have had their court projects put on hold indefinitely."

"If I lived in Sacramento, or Fresno, or Los Angeles or Nevada City I'd be asking some serious questions," she added. "We don't have a dollar to waste and every public dollar needs to be carefully accounted for, and the judiciary system is too important to waste one single dollar."

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