Jeff Jardine

Deciding how to decide future of new courthouse construction

Placerville's downtown courthouse has anchored Main Street for over 100 years, but current plans call for building a new courthouse on the west end of town behind the El Dorado County Jail.
Placerville's downtown courthouse has anchored Main Street for over 100 years, but current plans call for building a new courthouse on the west end of town behind the El Dorado County Jail. lsterling@sacbee.com

So now the waiting game begins, with Aug. 11 the new date to await.

That is when members of the State Judicial Council will decide how to proceed with new courthouse construction when they simply don’t have the money to complete all or even most of the projects on their to-do list. Or, more than likely, they decide how they’ll decide how to proceed.

“They have lots of decisions to make,” said Peter Allen, spokesman for the council.

Among them, which courthouses will get built. Stanislaus County’s planned $267 million project is one of a list of 23 – really 17 when you consider that six new courthouses, including ones in Stockton and Los Banos, are nearing completion.

“Ours has been in the process for 10 years,” San Joaquin County Supervising Judge Robin Appel said. “It was already slated (before the council announced its funding shortfall in March). We had major cuts to adjust to.”

It certainly isn’t the first time the state told counties there wouldn’t be enough money to meet the needs. In 2008, the senate passed a bill giving the state the authority to float up to $5 billion in bonds to replace or renovate courthouses in 32 counties. But since then, the state has hijacked $1.8 billion of it to bail out the government during the recession and beyond. Typically, the fund has not been repaid. The $1.8 billion? What $1.8 billion?

Other factors are lowering the revenue expected to help pay for construction. Court filing fees have declined for a variety of reasons. Also, a law authored by Sen. Bob Herzberg, D-Van Nuys, offers amnesty to motorists with outstanding traffic tickets. The law was designed to ease the financial pain of the working poor, but one of the impacts is lost revenue for the court construction fund, which gets 20 percent of every dollar in fines or fees collected, Judicial Council spokesman Allen said.

In one case, a $25 fine for failing to notify the Department of Motor Vehicles turned into $2,900, which Herzberg and others felt was ridiculous. An escalation of court fees and costs associated with tickets make them virtually impossible for some working-class drivers to pay.

“They were putting government services on the backs of the poor people,” Allen said. “They couldn’t afford to pay. At the same time, there are billions of uncollected debt in this state.”

And Proposition 47, which reduced some nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors, also reduced the fines and fees that help feed the construction kitty, although it went into effect in 2015 and its financial impact on court funding has yet to be determined.

As it stands, revenue projected at $213 million in fiscal 2016-17 will fall $10 million to $90 million short of meeting expenditures. Unless something changes, that means not only would none of the projects be built but also that the fund could be insolvent within 15 years.

Where does that leave Stanislaus, Tuolumne and 15 other counties still trying to get projects completed? Scared and hoping for a miracle. Their 17 projects combined would cost $1.31 billion.

Stanislaus County’s new building would include 26 courtrooms at a cost of $267 million. The council could build new facilities in Tuolumne ($65 million), Inyo ($26 million), Glenn ($40.5 million), Lake ($95 million) and Imperial ($47 million) for slightly more than the Stanislaus County project will cost. Stanislaus also could be competing with Shasta County ($159 million) and Sonoma County ($174 million), and any number of combinations involving new sites and projected costs, assuming any money is available at all.

And then, the Judicial Commission will need to take into consideration the safety and security of the existing facilities. Some, including the Tuolumne County Courthouse, are more than a century old, too small and lack security for transporting defendants within the jail. Stanislaus County’s courthouse has no holding cells adjacent to the courtrooms and lacks elevators, forcing custodial officers to escort about half of defendants in “perp walks” and across halls where courtroom visitors amass.

Earthquake standards will factor in, particularly where the oldest courthouses are concerned.

For now, funding for all of the proposed courthouses is in limbo awaiting the meeting of the Court Facilities Advisory Committee Aug. 11 in San Francisco. The committee will make its recommendations to the Judicial Council two weeks later. That, most likely, is when they will decide to decide on how they will go about deciding who gets how much or nothing at all.

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