California Could See Courthouse Construction Delays

SAN FRANCISCO — Courthouse construction could be even more scarce in California, depending on the results in Long Beach, Calif. The Court Facilities Working Group voted last week to recommend that four courthouse construction projects in Sacramento, Los Angeles, Fresno and Nevada City be delayed indefinitely if the legislature directs that court construction funds be used to finance the Governor George Deukmejian Courthouse in Long Beach, according to a statement by the California Courts.

The Long Beach courthouse is not going to be off the table because it is already in construction. The projects that were recommended are still in their initial phases and are not yet in construction. Long Beach is being delivered under a performance-based infrastructure method, which was authorized by the legislature in 2007 in that year’s Budget Act. Senate Bill 1407, which authorized up to $5 billion in court construction through court user fees, passed a year later, according to Teresa Ruano, spokesperson for the California Courts.

The talks began in September in a nearly 20-hour meeting, where decision makers discussed the current projects and made a short list of which facilities to take a closer look at, according to Ruano.

The recent meeting picked up where they left off in September and the Court Facilities Working Group was able to narrow down the current 23 courthouse construction projects to eight to seriously consider for delays. After closer examination and hearing from representatives on each respected project, the team narrowed it down to four courthouse projects to recommend for a delay in construction — based on a number of factors including the project’s current stage of planning and total cost.

Currently, the Long Beach courthouse is scheduled to open in fall 2013, but if the court cannot be paid for using California’s general fund then the fate of other projects could be stalled for quite some time.

“Difficult and devastating as it is to tell more courts that their much-needed and long-awaited projects may not move forward, the branch has a responsibility to proceed with only those projects that we know we can currently afford,” said Justice Brad R. Hill, chair of the Court Facilities Working Group and Administrative Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeal, Fifth Appellate District, in a statement. “All of these projects are desperately needed, and all residents throughout the state deserve access to justice in courthouses that are safe, secure, and accessible, so these decisions are very painful.”

The projects that are on the “delay” list are needed in their respective cities, but there is only so much money to go around that these projects may not see their completion date in the near future. Sacramento is looking to build a new criminal courthouse, while Los Angeles wants to replace an overburdened courthouse, and Fresno and Nevada City both with plans to renovate their downtown courthouses — all of these projects were recommended for delay by the group. However, the recommendations from the group also include a special direction for the Sacramento project, which would allow the project to proceed with a $10 million commitment to the developer of the Railyards [planned development in downtown Sacramento] that would allow the construction to continue as planned when funding becomes available.

The recommendations are expected to go before the Judicial Council in January 2013. The funds are likely to be an issue for some time — by fiscal year 2013-2014, nearly $1.5 billion of court user fees originally designated by the legislature to be set aside specifically for court construction will have been borrowed, transferred to the state general fund, or redirected to court operations, according to a statement by the California Courts.

“We have been working for months advocating that the Long Beach courthouse be paid for by the general fund, as was originally planned, and not burden the account that funds so many other urgently needed projects throughout the state,” said Hill in a statement. “The first of the ongoing payments for Long Beach comes due in the next fiscal year, and current indicators are that there will not be general fund dollars available. We’ll continue to advocate for resolution of the funding for Long Beach from the general fund so that these other communities would not be disadvantaged.”

The recommendations will be given to the council at the beginning of the year, so at this time, Ruano explained, “What will happen to these projects, remains to be seen.”