Which would you consider worse?
Buying up all of the property on a city block downtown, selling it to the state for a new courthouse, evicting the tenants, and boarding up or fencing in the vacant buildings until they are demolished, only to find out that there might be no money for new construction or even to raze the existing blight?
Or having the funding vanish for your already-approved, already-designed, five-room courthouse, with removal of existing buildings expected to begin next month?
The easy answer is that both options would be pretty rotten and deflating by any standards.
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By now, you probably recognize the first example as what could happen in Modesto, where the new Stanislaus County Courthouse is planned for the block bordered by Ninth and 10th, G and H streets. Funding for the $267 million project – which would be the largest single public works effort in Stanislaus County history – is in jeopardy because the state doesn’t have the money to build it. Seventeen other counties statewide face similar dilemmas: aging, inadequate and in some cases unsafe courthouses that needed to replaced long ago. Stanislaus County’s courthouse is too small inside, lacks holding cells adjacent to the courtrooms and has elevators on only one side of the hallways separating the courtrooms, meaning daily “perp walks” to move them across. It’s also one of the ugliest major buildings in the downtown, surpassed in eyesore-ness only by the jail next door.
The second choice emanates from the small town of Yreka, so far north in California that its residents can see Oregon from their backyards. The folks in Siskiyou County – its entire population of 43,000 roughly matches that of the cities of Riverbank and Oakdale combined – thought they were ready to go with construction and still might be. Or not. They’ll know more after meetings involving state court officials Aug. 11 and Aug. 25 in San Francisco.
That county’s existing courthouse was built in 1857, followed by an expansion in 1956. Like Stanislaus County’s, the Siskiyou County Courthouse lacks holding cells. Deputies fetch defendants from the county jail, bring them to the courthouse and march them from the street into the building, through the halls and upstairs to the second-level courtrooms or down to the chambers in the basement.
Security issues? In 2000, a 68-year-old defendant in a sex crimes case smuggled a handgun into the courthouse hallway, where he shot and wounded his 26-year-old victim and her husband before killing himself.
Access for the disabled? The elevator keeps breaking down. Trials involving the disabled can be scheduled only when the elevator feels up (or down) to it. It is under repair and out of service into September.
At least the building isn’t in an earthquake zone.
“But there’s a volcano (Mount Shasta) 30 miles away,” said Mary Frances McHugh, the Siskiyou County Superior Court’s executive officer.
When the state approved construction on the $66 million project, it told Siskiyou County officials to proceed by applying for a $28 million “bridge loan” that would be paid through a future state bond approved by the state Public Works Board. Peter Allen, spokesman for the Judicial Council, said the state has deferred the loan request until Aug. 17.
The project’s contractor, McCarthy Building Cos. of Sacramento, in June sent letters to residents and business owners who would be affected by the construction, updating them on the schedule beginning with demolition, excavation and various other stages.
“We’re the only (new) project teed up to go,” McHugh said. “All of the work schedules are queued up.”
Allen, however, said no demolition date has been scheduled and, to date, no demolition contract has been awarded because the funding isn’t in place.
Why the funding problem? The state over time has raided $1.8 billion from the courthouse building fund, and the fund’s revenues have been slowed by other factors including traffic ticket amnesties, fewer court filings (meaning fewer court filing fees), lower fine income due to Proposition 47 and other factors. Meanwhile, projects including the $555.5 million San Diego County Courthouse, the $273 million San Joaquin County Courthouse and the $26.4 million Merced County Courthouse are under construction or nearing completion. The construction account has more money going out than coming in, and could be insolvent within 15 years.
The Judicial Council, which controls courthouse construction, must find other ways to get the facilities built. Otherwise, counties including Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Siskiyou – which have active but unstarted projects – could see construction postponed indefinitely.
Even delaying construction by a few months would hurt Siskiyou County, McHugh said. Its new facility is projected to open in the summer of 2018, with actual construction beginning a few weeks from now. Eight homes on the site must be moved or razed. The county contracted with the state to keep them looking presentable and unoccupied by transients until they are moved or destroyed.
And if construction doesn’t start by Aug. 19, the bids expire and must be rebid by law, McHugh said. Bids can be extended by a month, but could include a fee unless the contractor decides to waive it. It’s unlikely the Judicial Council will make a decision on whether to proceed before its next meeting.
“Contractors and workers cleared their calendars when they bid for this,” McHugh said. “They could be losing job opportunities because they planned to be here instead of taking jobs elsewhere.”
Yes, Stanislaus County officials are panicking that funding for the state-of-the-art courthouse replacement is in trouble.
So are 17 other counties, including the one most shovel-ready.