Nevada County’s long fought-for renovation of its courthouse has been recommended for indefinite delay, according to a spokesperson for Judicial Council, the policy-making body for the state’s judicial branch.
The decision to suspend the project came out of hasty meeting to divert $550 million from the statewide courthouse construction fund to the Long Beach courthouse, a project nearly complete and originally intended to be paid for from the state general fund.
However the state legislature unexpectedly signaled its intent to instead keep those funds, forcing the judicial branch to unexpectedly fund the project from a pot that had been allocated to 23 remaining courthouse projects statewide, including Nevada County’s, according to court officials.
“That is such an enormous blow to the SB 1407 program,” said Sean Metroka, Nevada County Court’s chief executive officer, about the Senate Bill intended to finance courthouse construction bonds,
Sacramento, Los Angeles and Fresno courthouses were also recommended for indefinite delays by the Court Facilities Working Group — all projects in their infancy, said Judicial Council Spokesperson Teresa Ruano, in a phone interview with The Union.
“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 facilities working group, 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,” said Hill, also the administrative presiding justice of the Fifth Appellate District Court of Appeal.
Supporters of the Nevada County courthouse, seated in downtown Nevada City, have been battling the state since the project’s inception in 2009, when the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) determined it is “unsafe, substandard, overcrowded and functionally deficient,” and $108 million was pegged for either a rebuild or a renovation.
“The need is not going to go away. It is only going to get worse and worse,” said Nevada City Councilman Robert Bergman, also an attorney. “The maintenance costs will continue to rise just to keep it together.”
At first the AOC signaled an intent to build a new courthouse elsewhere in Nevada City, which sparked the ire of officials and residents who argued that taking the judicial branch out of the historic downtown district would negatively affect the area’s economic stability. On the other hand, historic preservationists rebuked proposals to renovate the 148-year-old courthouse and its Art Deco façade.
After months of wrangling, consensus was reached in August when Nevada City and courthouse officials presented a plan on how the courthouse could be renovated using only the existing land, rather than a complete the demolition and purchasing new land to rebuild on — a plan reported to save at least $40 million.
“When you try so hard to get this done, to come to such a good end, and then it gets taken away,” Bergman said. “It is kind of sad.”
The projected $40 million cost savings played no insignificant part in the AOC’s September recommendation for the courthouse project to proceed — when seven other courthouses got hte axe.
Since its 2008 enactment, nearly $1.5 billion of funding from Senate Bill 1407 have instead been borrowed, transferred to the state’s general fund or redirected to court operations, according to the Judicial Council. This year the Legislature directed that $50 million per year be permanently diverted from court construction to trial court operations.
Of the projects originally slated to be funded by SB 1407, eight are proceeding this year, with many of those due to start construction in 2013. The remaining 19 projects will undergo cost reduction studies, Ruano said.
If enough funds or if the legislature decides to fund the Long Beach project, funds could be made available to move forward with a cost feasibility study on delayed courthouses, Ruano said.
“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,” Hill said.
“We’re going to continue to advocate for long beach to come out of the general fund,” Ruano told The Union. “We believe that is fair and that is what has to happen.”
In the mean time, the courthouse delay recommendations will be posted on the California Courts website for two weeks for public comment, then submitted for to the Judicial Council for approval early next year. The council’s next meeting is in January. “I’m disappointed,” Metroka said. “Most of us will sigh and move on. We have lots of challenging issues to address.
“The fact is, this project is not part of the day-to-day business of the court,” Metroka said. “We are still going to focus on the things we must do to keep the courthouse open and operating for the citizens of the county.”
To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4236.
“The need is not going to go away. It is only going to get worse and worse.”
— Nevada City Councilman Robert Bergman