Fingers pointing over courthouse construction crisis

Legislators approved spending $2 million to tear down vacant buildings on this block in downtown Modesto, to make way for a new courthouse. It’s bounded by Ninth, 10th, G and H streets.
Legislators approved spending $2 million to tear down vacant buildings on this block in downtown Modesto, to make way for a new courthouse. It’s bounded by Ninth, 10th, G and H streets. Modesto Bee file

News that money might run short for building new courthouses in Modesto, Sonora and 21 other cities has launched a high-level blame game.

Five area legislators from both major parties fired off a scathing letter Friday to the California Judicial Council, railing on “a lack of organization and leadership” and accusing the agency of ignoring a gaping funding sinkhole.

“Had this problem been brought to the attention of lawmakers in April, we are confident that bipartisan action could have been taken to address the funding shortfall,” reads the bipartisan letter. It was signed by Assembly members Kristin Olsen and Adam Gray, and Sens. Cathleen Galigiani, Anthony Cannella and Tom Berryhill.

The crisis threatens plans for a $267 million courthouse expected in downtown Modesto by 2021, and another costing $65 million in Sonora by 2019.

The Judicial Council, whose duties include courthouse construction, served notice of the money gap “just one day after the state budget was signed,” the five legislators noted. That’s “highly questionable” timing, their letter says, especially because a representative of the agency seemed to downplay concerns in an Assembly committee meeting before the budget passed.

The Judicial Council has blamed state leaders for raiding $1.4 billion from the building fund during the recession, without returning it. Also, people have not paid as many court fees and fines as expected; a portion of that money is earmarked for court construction.

In related news, a critical meeting that could help decide the fate of the Modesto and Sonora courthouses has been delayed from Aug. 4 to Aug. 11, according to unconfirmed reports. Also, $2.1 million to raze eight vacant buildings for the Modesto courthouse was set aside in the approved state budget, although when that might occur could not be pinned down Friday.

Whether projects in Stanislaus and Tuolumne counties might compete against others for remaining construction cash, or become subject to delays or elimination, remains up in the air. Court officials hope some answers emerge at the Aug. 11 meeting of the Judicial Council’s court facilities advisory committee, which makes recommendations to the full Judicial Council.

“A decision like this would be devastating for all those who use this building and do business in the downtown area,” Rebecca Fleming, Stanislaus court executive officer, wrote recently to judges and city and county leaders. She urged them to “join this effort” and let the Judicial Council “hear the voice of Stanislaus.”

The united voice of the five legislators drew no immediate response from the Judicial Council.

Downtown Modesto is in districts represented by Gray and Galgiani, both Democrats, while the others are Republicans. Olsen formerly served on the Modesto City Council and will return to downtown Modesto at year’s end as a county supervisor. Most of Cannella’s constituents rely on courts in Modesto, and Berryhill’s are served by Tuolumne courts in Sonora.

“We are deeply troubled to learn” of the cash crunch, their letter said.

“It is unacceptable for the Judicial Council to surprise everyone by saying there is insufficient funding, when it failed to raise these critical concerns during the state budget hearings that ended just a few short weeks ago,” Olsen said. She attended such hearings as a member of an Assembly committee.

At an April 25 committee meeting, Judicial Council finance director Zlatko Theodorovic raised no red flags while noting that the council would continue assessing its construction account.

“Had this concern come to the Legislature at any point up through the May-June state budget process,” Galgiani said, “I know I would have been joined by many other legislators in insisting that the matter be fully examined and addressed.”

In the state budget, leaders approved $15.3 million to design a 308,964-square-foot courthouse in downtown Modesto, with 27 courtrooms, as well as setting aside money to demolish buildings vacated on the block bounded by Ninth, 10th, G and H streets. That money is expected to come through, while the 23 projects threatened across California represents a long-term revenue problem.

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine contributed to this report.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390

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