New obstacle on the docket for Modesto, Sonora, Los Banos courthouse projects

jsbranti@modbee.comDecember 3, 2012 

JBL Court Elevators 1

JOAN BARNETT LEE/jlee@modbee.com Inmates make their way up stairs and into a hallway on Monday afternoon (11-26-12) at the Stanislaus County Superior Courthouse in Modesto, Ca. The elevators that move inmates through the courthouse are broken and won't be repaired for another several months. The hallways have to be cleared for security purposes as inmates are ushered into courtrooms.

JOAN BARNETT LEE — Modesto Bee

— A new obstacle may derail plans to build courthouses in Modesto, Sonora and Los Banos.

State officials revealed Monday that they may shift $600 million away from courthouse construction projects to cover the leasing costs for a new privately built Long Beach courthouse.

That unexpected expense would reduce how much could be spent to construct courthouses elsewhere in California, including the the long-planned $278.3 million Modesto courthouse, the $69.2 million Sonora courthouse and the $32.2 million Los Banos courthouse.

Those three projects — and 21 others previously approved — will be re-evaluated Dec. 13, and some of them may get cut.

"I would categorize this as devastating news," Michael Tozzi, Stanislaus County courts administrator, said Monday.

For more than two years, plans have proceeded for an eight-story courthouse to replace Stanislaus' rundown facility at 800 11th St.

State officials this fall gave the go-ahead to purchase an entire block of downtown Modesto for the project, but now that may not happen.

"The (judicial) branch has a responsibility to move forward with only the projects that we can afford," Appellate Court Justice Brad Hill wrote Monday in an e-mail to Tozzi. Hill heads the facilities group overseeing courthouse construction.

"Ultimately, the Judicial Council will need to decide which projects must be indefinitely delayed to accommodate funding the new courthouse in Long Beach out of SB 1407 funds," Hill said.

Senate Bill 1407, signed into law in 2008, designated judicial branch revenues to finance up to $5 billion in courthouse construction bonds. New court fees, penalties and assessments were supposed to be used to pay off those bonds.

Repayment diverted

But nearly $1.5 billion from those courthouse construction fees has been borrowed, transferred to the state's general fund or redirected to court operations.

The state's general fund was expected to cover the Long Beach courthouse leasing costs, but now SB 1407 funds may get stuck with that expense, too.

Rather than the state building a courthouse, the $490 million Long Beach construction project is being paid for by a private group of architects, builders, financiers and facility managers. Once it is completed next fall, the state will lease it at a cost of about $50 million per year.

"We have been working for months advocating that this project be paid for by the general fund and not transferred to the 1407 program," Hill wrote. But Monday, he determined that wasn't going to happen.

So the state's Court Facilities Working Group will meet Dec. 13 in San Francisco to decide which of California's other courthouse construction projects must get slashed.

In Stanislaus County, court officials were about to announce what land they wanted to buy for the new Modesto courthouse. Tozzi said about $7 million was expected to be spent to purchase one entire block downtown.

The Modesto sites being considered are:

• The block where the city of Modesto and its redevelopment agency own property between Ninth and 10th streets and G and H streets. Private landowners there include G&K (Reed) Enterprises, Gary Gervasoni, Helen Silva, Gina Rugani and Curtis Mote.

• The block where The Modesto Bee leases space between 13th and 14th streets and H and I streets. That 2.75-acre block was sold in April 2011 to a group of investors from Visalia and San Luis Obispo.

"It's been a frustrating process," said Niniv Tamimi, who has the development and management agreement for the Bee property. "Had we known 18 months ago that (it was going to take so long for the state to decide whether it wanted to buy the property), we would have started marketing it to others."

Tamimi said he only recently began offering the property for lease or sale to the public, but the much-delayed courthouse deal has "created a cloud over the whole process."

The Modesto courthouse project is more than a year behind schedule. What's planned is a new 301,464-square-foot facility with 26 courtrooms.

Wear and tear

The county's courthouse is worn out, according to Tozzi. "This is just a decrepit place that's falling apart piece by piece," he said.

Tozzi noted that the building's broken elevator has created "a very dangerous situation" because it forces inmates and accused criminals to be transported through public hallways.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196.


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