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Big crowd expected at courthouse construction meeting

The former Gervasoni’s Restaurant is boarded up on Ninth Street in downtown Modesto, awaiting a wrecking ball to make way for a new courthouse. A construction funding crisis leaves the project in limbo.
The former Gervasoni’s Restaurant is boarded up on Ninth Street in downtown Modesto, awaiting a wrecking ball to make way for a new courthouse. A construction funding crisis leaves the project in limbo. jjardine@modbee.com

A key meeting that could answer whether new courthouses will be built in Modesto and Sonora has been postponed a week, from Aug. 4 to Aug. 11, although information about public access remains murky.

Both projects – and 21 others throughout California – are threatened because a courthouse-construction fund is depleting fast.

Conflicts with other judicial branch events are to blame for the delay in the crucial meeting of the Court Facilities Advisory Committee. Its members would recommend to the full California Judicial Council which among 23 planned courthouse projects may proceed.

Details about public access to the Aug. 11 meeting, to be held in San Francisco, were scarce Wednesday. People unable to attend typically call a toll-free telephone number to listen in and provide comments, but committee leadership is considering streaming the meeting live on the internet to accommodate increased demand.

“A lot of people are nervous about this,” said Peter Allen, Judicial Council spokesman. He said more information is forthcoming about the meeting, which usually begins at 10:30 a.m. at 455 Golden Gate Ave., San Francisco.

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

Meanwhile, the Judicial Council released warnings to state lawmakers about the construction fund’s shaky footing, in response to a bipartisan scolding by five legislators from this area.

The five had chastised the council for not raising a red flag during state budget hearings a few weeks ago, in a letter to the Judicial Council featured in a Sunday Modesto Bee report. Signing on were Sens. Cathleen Galgiani, Anthony Cannella and Tom Berryhill, and Assembly members Kristin Olsen and Adam Gray.

The fund’s precarious status should have been clear, Allen suggested, pointing to language in seven reports dating to February 2013, some justifying the troubling practice of raiding construction money to keep courts operating and to bridge recession-fueled gaps in the state’s general fund. Lawmakers approved several “redirections” of construction money since then, totaling $1.8 billion, despite warnings that the fund would go broke, partly because people aren’t paying fines as projected.

“Our seriously underfunded branch is being transformed into a user-fee-supported institution, while dangerous, unsafe and inaccessible courthouse buildings, which had been scheduled for replacement, will not be renovated or replaced,” reads one advisory in 2014.

Olsen said the Judicial Council’s timeline is proof that the agency knew it was sinking fast, “which makes their silence in front of the Legislature in April all the more confounding.”

Its representatives, she said, “failed to accurately characterize the extent of the problem. Not once at the hearing did they mention that funds were insufficient to build the new Modesto courthouse or the other planned courthouse projects throughout the state.”

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390

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