Funding for $267 million downtown Modesto courthouse at risk

Funding for the new $267 million courthouse in downtown Modesto, as well as for courthouse projects across California, is at risk because the policy making board for the state court system expects money to fall short.

The Judicial Council of California’s Court Facilities Advisory Committee says the funding for courthouse construction is in dire shape, according to a council news release, 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.

The Judicial Council is the policy making board for the state’s courts. The committee met June 28 in San Francisco to review courthouse construction funding.

The release says the committee directed council staff to work with the state Department of Finance to come up with recommendations at the committee’s Aug. 4 meeting on what projects can move forward. The Judicial Council would have to approve any changes recommended by the committee.

“We’ve discussed the status of the construction fund in other public meetings, always expressing our concern about its long-term viability,” said Justice Brad Hill, the committee chairman, in the release. “But the cumulative impact of the fund redirections (the state taking $1.4 billion) and the reduction of revenue from fines and fees creates a perfect storm. ... That said, we are going to find a path forward.”

Court officials in Stanislaus and Tuolumne counties are dismayed by the developments.

“We’re devastated that the courthouse could not be funded and learning (about) the condition of the fund,” said Brandi Christensen, facilities support service manager for Stanislaus County Superior Court. She was one of three Stanislaus County Superior Court officials who attended the June meeting. “We are waiting until Aug. 4 to find out what we do from here. ... We don’t know at this point what it really means.”

Modesto is among 23 courthouse projects across the state. Six are under construction, including in Los Banos and Stockton.

Officials are working on the preliminary plans and design for the Modesto courthouse. Construction has been expected to start around June 2018 on the roughly 309,000-square-foot Modesto courthouse on the city block bounded by H and G streets and Ninth and 10th streets. It would be roughly twice the size of the outdated, downtown courthouse on 11th Street that it would replace.

The most modern part of the current courthouse — which houses the courtrooms — was built in 1960. The other half of the courthouse was built in 1871 and remodeled in 1939. The courthouse has no holding cells for inmates, who are kept in jury rooms before their court appearances. “We don’t have an inch to move,” Christensen said. “Our courtrooms are packed every day.”

Stanislaus Superior Court Presiding Judge Marie Silveira said the county has been relying upon the state to keep its promise to build a new courthouse. She said cutting off the construction funding will set back the planning and community cooperation for this project that started more than a decade ago.

Tuolumne County is expecting a new, long-awaited courthouse by 2019.

“We’re both facing the same thing in terms of being put on hold for inadequate funding,” said Jeanine Tucker, Tuolumne’s chief court executive. She worked for Stanislaus courts before moving up the hill three years ago.

The three courtrooms in downtown Sonora’s beautiful three-story, elevatorless courthouse, built in 1898, have long depended on help from two auxiliary courtrooms in the Washington Street annex two blocks away. Officials plan to consolidate in a new $65 million courthouse at the future Law and Justice Center where Highway 108 meets Old Wards Ferry Road, near the Lowe’s and Walmart stores.

A new juvenile detention center is nearing completion on that 4.3-acre campus, and construction for an adult jail should break ground there in the fall.

The eye-catching old courthouse on West Yaney Street, with its fancy woodwork and old-time charm, is on the National Register of Historic Places and might be retained for mock trials and other ceremonial purposes, Tucker said, once the new one is built. If it’s built.

Christensen said Stanislaus Superior Court officials are asking local legislators for help in keeping the funding in place.

“It’s a priority for the assemblyman to get this completed on time and on schedule,” said Trent Hager, chief of staff for Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, whose district includes downtown Modesto. His office awaits more information, particularly from the August meeting. “We’ll be on top of it,” Hager said.

A spokesman for state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Manteca, whose district includes downtown Modesto, said her office is looking into the issue.

“The Modesto courthouse has been in the planning stages for years, but now is the time to make it a reality,” said state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres. “The safety of our residents rely on a judicial system and facility that meets the needs of our community, and the state needs to honor its commitment to help fund this project.”

Presiding judges and court executive officers from eight Superior Courts — including Stanislaus and Tuolumne — are asking the Court Facilities Advisory Committee chairman to provide the public with a complete analysis of the assumptions and other factors underlying the projected funding shortfall, periodic updates on the construction fund, and that the Judicial Council pursue a more stable funding source through the Governor’s Office and Legislature for building courthouses.

“Fundamental change is required to properly fund long-term courthouse construction projects,” the presiding judges and court executive officers said in a July 6 letter to Hill, the committee chairman.

The letter also states that “to stop all projects at this time is to throw in the towel prematurely and risk jeopardizing the judicial branch’s courthouse construction accomplishments. It further risks increased costs for all phases of projects as escalation costs continue to rise each year a project is delayed. This results in additional costs without ... adding any value, further depleting an already starved fund.”

The city sold the state the land for the site of the new courthouse after buying the private parcels on the block. The city also owned some of the parcels. The buildings at the site are now boarded up, some protected by chain-link fence topped with razor wire.

Modesto was criticized for its role in the project, with some accusing the city of engaging in backroom deals, which officials denied. And the city used some of the money it got from the state for the sale of its parcels to pay some of the other parcel owners more for their property than its appraised value. But city officials said a new courthouse on that block is integral to Modesto’s efforts to redevelop 10th Street.

“The courthouse is a very important element to the long term vibrancy of our downtown,” Deputy City Manager Brent Sinclair said in a Tuesday email. “The sooner the project gets started, the sooner it will begin to stimulate the economic core of our city and more specifically Tenth Street. Regardless of the timeline, the city remains committed to implementing the Tenth Street vision.”

Kevin Valine: 209-578-2316. Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390. Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada contributed to this report.