Business & Real Estate

State Judicial Council: ‘We are out of money’ for court construction

Sacramento Superior Court leaders have long been eager to build a new railyard courthouse to replace a facility they call outdated, overcrowded and unsafe.
Sacramento Superior Court leaders have long been eager to build a new railyard courthouse to replace a facility they call outdated, overcrowded and unsafe.

State judicial officials voted last month to delay more than two dozen courthouse construction projects in 26 counties, saying budget shortfalls have drained the money needed to fund them.

The plan that Judicial Council of California officials approved at their Aug. 26 meeting allows local courts to complete the project work already begun – construction, site acquisition, working drawings, or, as in Sacramento, preliminary design plans for its proposed $493 million project near the city’s railyard – before the council halts further work while it seeks funding.

“We are out of money and there is nothing we can do at this point, short of getting that money back,” state appellate Justice Brad Hill, chairman of the Judicial Council of California’s court facilities advisory committee, was quoted as saying at the council’s meeting in a statement by Judicial Council officials. “The days of being able to limp along are over.”

Judicial Council officials trace the shortfall to the approximately $1.4 billion in court-construction cash diverted to help California wend its way through rough economic waters during the recession. Combined with declining revenue from court fines and fees, Judicial Council officials say, fiscal woes continue to mount.

Court representatives say plans remain on track for Placer County, where plans for a long-sought Tahoe City courthouse languish on the shelf.

“The Judicial Council’s action is an unfortunate necessity,” said Jake Chatters, executive officer of Placer Superior Court, whose plans for a new court building in Tahoe City have been “indefinitely delayed” by the council since 2012. “The Legislature and the governor made a tough decision to divert funds. Those funds haven’t been returned.”

The Judicial Council also agreed to allocate $65 million in funding for critical and emergency courthouse modifications and repairs in the 2016-17 fiscal year, though council officials have said the money will not be enough to fully address the needs of California’s courts.

In neighboring El Dorado County, court executive officer Tania Ugrin-Capobianco said lawmakers need to find the money to make court operations whole.

“We need to bring the issue in front of the Legislature and the governor. They took the money, and they need to give it back to us,” she said. “People deserve safe, secure buildings to conduct their business.”

Sacramento Superior Court Presiding Judge Kevin Culhane said funding challenges surrounding Sacramento’s downtown project were clear well before the council’s August announcement. He supported the council’s efforts toward nailing down a stable funding source for courthouse projects.

“The state of affairs before and after the (Judicial Council) meeting was that we needed to come up with a source of construction funds. That’s always been the case,” Culhane said.

Sacramento court officials have said they hope to break ground on a new 538,000-square-foot, 53-courtroom facility on H Street between Fifth and Sixth streets in two years, with construction taking another 36 months. Culhane said officials met Aug. 26 with architects who expect to complete preliminary project drawings by next summer.

Meanwhile, the council’s decision again places on hold El Dorado’s own long-held plans for a new Placerville facility near the county’s jail to replace its historic but obsolete Main Street courthouse.

“There is a desperate need for a (new) courthouse on the west slope,” Ugrin-Capobianco said, citing issues including parking, security and environmental hazards from lead and asbestos. “Folks believe (the) Main Street (courthouse) can be rehabilitated, but it is inadequate.”

That has become a familiar refrain among California courts officials. A Judicial Council report on facility modifications and planning in the upcoming fiscal year show 60 percent of California counties, including Sacramento and El Dorado, have court facilities below “managed care levels,” defined as facilities where “equipment and building components are mostly functional, with occasional breakdowns.”

Nearby, Yolo and Sutter counties have recently opened new courthouses in Woodland and Yuba City, respectively; while the Judicial Council in its August announcement allowed San Joaquin Superior Court and five other courts to move ahead on their construction projects.

San Joaquin Superior Court expects to complete construction of its new Stockton site in June, according to the council.

For years, Sacramento Superior Court had pushed to replace its 50-year-old Gordon Schaber Courthouse, long derided as outdated, overcrowded and unsafe, with a secure, more spacious and convenient 53-courtroom building that combined civil and criminal proceedings under one roof.

Court leaders again sounded alarm in an Aug. 10 memorandum to a Judicial Council facilities committee, saying the Ninth Street courthouse, built in 1965 with just 22 courtrooms before it was later modified to house 44 courtrooms, has had “major security, life safety, functional and overcrowding issues” for decades.

“The infrastructure has never changed,” Culhane said. “This courthouse was determined to be unsafe and dangerous in 2007, nearly a decade ago.”

“The capital of the sixth-largest economy in the world doesn’t have a working courthouse. That’s pretty stark,” Culhane said Thursday. “We know it will be built someday, it’s just when and how long? I understand you’ve got to proceed in a way that’s deliberate and well thought-out, but sometimes you just need to proceed.”

Darrell Smith: 916-321-1040, @dvaughnsmith