As the speaker of the state Assembly pushes for a budget that would include added funds for California courts, Nevada City’s elected officials directed municipal staff Wednesday to pursue an independent feasibility study to kick-start a renovation of the Nevada County Courthouse — a project the state indefinitely delayed in January.
Members of the Nevada City Courthouse Committee argued at Wednesday’s Nevada City Council meeting that an independent effort to complete an estimated $94,000 feasibility and cost engineering study will make the proposed project more attractive than other statewide projects vying for judicial funds that have diminished in recent years.
“Proceeding with that study would put us in a ready to proceed mode,” said City Manager David Brennan.
Although council gave its blessing to pursue the study, its members did not discuss any specific funding allocation Wednesday. Brennan said he would return at a subsequent meeting with a staff recommendation for contribution.
“We are not asking the city to make any decision in terms of allocating funding (tonight),” Brennan said.
The Nevada County Courthouse project was initially budgeted for $108 million to rebuild the 148-year-old facility — not necessarily at its current downtown location. However, since the Administrative Office of the Courts first determined Nevada City’s courthouse is “unsafe, substandard, overcrowded and functionally deficient” in 2009, more than $5 billion in funding originally planned for statewide courthouse construction projects was instead borrowed, swept to the state’s general fund or redirected to court operations — a process that forced the judicial branch to slowly whittle its project list down.
“All the money got pulled, the little money that remains is going into a courthouse in Long Beach,” said Paul Matson, who chairs the courthouse committee.
Earlier Wednesday, State Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, announced plans to replace a Republican-backed rainy day fund measure on the November 2014 ballot with a new ballot measure that, among other aspects, could potentially make it more favorable for the public employee unions that support Democratic lawmakers.
However, another aspect of Perez’s “Blueprint for a Responsible Budget” is a call to protect courthouse funds with strong accounting measures.
Funding for courts must be preserved, Perez’s plan notes, to ensure Californians have adequate access to necessary court services, but the funding must come with strong accountability and reporting requirements to provide better management and to ensure critical court services and access are, in fact, preserved.
“I applaud the speaker’s leadership in articulating the need to begin reinvesting in the courts,” said Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye in a statement. “His knowledge and understanding of the equal access to justice issues are a great benefit to all Californians.”
Whether Perez’s suggestions are incorporated into Gov. Jerry Brown’s May revision of the budget will be determined when it is released Friday, said Judicial Council spokesman Cathal Conneely.
“At this stage it is hard to stay,” Conneely said, noting that the state courts’ priorities are to restore courthouse operations funding first, but that construction is its second priority.
“We are looking to get funding restored in those two critical areas,” Conneely said. “But, until we see what the governor is proposing Friday, we won’t know.”
Either way, though, courthouse construction continues to be discussed at the statewide level.
“It’s not a question of if funding becomes available, it’s when funding becomes available,” Brennan said.
The committee has tapped Michael Ross and Associates to conduct the study because the firm has performed work for the Administrative Office of the Courts on numerous construction projects, Brennan noted.
Additionally, Paul Menard from the Administrative Office of the Courts project management group and one of the organization’s architects have been assigned to work with Nevada City during the study.
“The state has said they will accept this report as if it is their own report,” Matson said.
Although Nevada City does not own the courthouse, city leaders have long contended its retention in the downtown historic district is essential to that area’s economic vitality. However, Brennan noted that any upgrade would benefit all of Nevada County, including the county government, which owns 49 percent of the building (the remainder is owned by the state).
“It would be appropriate if the building owners saw the advantage of getting the study funded,” Brennan noted.
While committee members argued it is crucial for Nevada City to send a message of support by contributing a sizable portion of the initial funding for the study, Councilman Robert Bergman noted that a stronger signal of community support would be sent through a broader base of financial support.
“A new courthouse will happen,” said Bergman. “By taking control now and getting this study done, we increase incredibly the chances of what we want and need.”
To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4236.