Brown proposes fix for stalled Modesto, Sonora courthouse projects

Work crews spread gravel Wednesday morning January 10, 2018 at the site of the new Modesto Courthouse on H street between Ninth and 10th streets in downtown Modesto, Calif.
Work crews spread gravel Wednesday morning January 10, 2018 at the site of the new Modesto Courthouse on H street between Ninth and 10th streets in downtown Modesto, Calif.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget includes funding to finish the design work for Modesto’s new downtown courthouse as well as a plan to pay for building it and nine other court projects across the state, including a new Sonora courthouse.

That’s a boost for these projects, which have been under a cloud for more than a year after the Judicial Council of California ― the policymaker for the state courts ― slowed the work because of a funding shortfall.

“We are very pleased with that good news,” said Court Executive Officer Jeanine Tucker with the Tuolumne County Superior Court. “We were waiting with great anticipation to see what was going to be included in the budget. We are thrilled with the people (who) advocated for these projects.”

Tucker said she expects to learn more this week at a conference call with the Judicial Council. Stanislaus County Superior Court officials declined to comment until after the call. But Judicial Council Administrative Director Martin Hoshino echoed Tucker’s comments.

“We are really pleased that there is a recognition and an effort to solve this problem because the needs are critical,” he said.

Court officials in Modesto, Sonora and across the state have spoken about the dire need for new courthouses to replace overcrowded and outmoded facilities.

The Modesto courthouse is expected to cost about $262 million, have about two dozen courtrooms and at roughly 300,000 square feet be about twice the size of the current downtown courthouse. The Sonora courthouse is expected to cost about $65 million. These costs are for construction, design and other project expenses.

Brown’s $131.7 billion general fund budget proposal that he released Wednesday is for the state’s 2018-19 fiscal year, which starts July 1. The proposal will be reviewed and eventually passed by the Legislature.

But Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, whose district includes central and western Stanislaus County and part of Modesto, praised Brown for finding a solution for the court projects.

“After six years of delay, I applaud the Governor’s decision to advance critically needed courthouse construction projects throughout the state,” Gray said in an email. “The hard work and perseverance of advocates throughout our community is finally paying off.

“Not only will the project help to address a backlog of pending legal cases, the new state of the art building will also promote downtown Modesto as a modern and vibrant city center.”

Brown’s proposal includes $32.2 million to finish design work for courthouses in Modesto, Santa Rosa, and Menifee in Riverside County. The Modesto design work could be completed in 2019, while the Sonora courthouse is ready to be built.

The budget proposes the state issue what are called lease revenue bonds over the next two years to pay for construction of the 10 projects, including the courthouses in Sonora and Modesto. The general fund would pay back the debt.

Finance Department spokesman H.D. Palmer said the state expects it will cost a little more than $1 billion to build the 10 projects. He said the state uses lease revenue bonds ― which do not require voter approval ― to build state facilities, including prisons, courthouses and office buildings.

Brown’s budget proposal picked these 10 court projects because they are close to or ready to proceed to construction. The state has several other projects.

The Judicial Council has said funding for courthouse construction is in dire shape in part because the state took about $1.4 billion during its budget crisis, which it has not repaid, and revenue from court fees and fines that pays for new courthouses has fallen sharply.