Our view: Courthouse study in right hands
May 12, 2013
This week, Nevada City's elected officials directed city staff to pursue an independent feasibility study in hopes of reviving the renovation of the Nevada County Courthouse, which the state "indefinitely delayed" in January despite its own 2009 report that deemed the 148-year-old facility "unsafe, substandard, overcrowded and functionally deficient."
The project was put on hold by the state's Court Facilities Working Group last fall as the group revisited 31 projects statewide to determine which would proceed amid the Administrative Office of Courts' work to review its ability to fund such projects in light of court construction funding being repeatedly diverted to other needs due to the state's budget crisis.
Rather than wait for funds to become available, Nevada City officials and its courthouse committee believe independently funding a new feasibility study — with assistance from the local community — will make the project more attractive when funding becomes available. While such a proactive approach is to be applauded, the fact that it is necessary is yet another example of state mismanagement negatively impacting the local level.
The Nevada City Courthouse Committee encouraged the Nevada City Council to advocate for an independent effort to complete an estimated $94,000 feasibility and cost engineering study to make the proposed project more attractive than other statewide projects vying for judicial funds that have diminished in recent years. Such studies for the state courthouse projects, including the 2010 review of a proposed $108 million renovation of Nevada City's courthouse, were to be funded through the 2008 passage of Senate Bill 1407.
That legislation, as a March report by the AOC noted, launched an unprecedented courthouse rebuilding program in California by designating judicial branch revenues to fund up to $5 billion in lease-revenue bonds to finance new construction and renovation projects in 32 counties. It was estimated that 104,000 direct and indirect jobs would be created by the projects funded by SB 1407.
But since its enactment, nearly $1.5 billion of funding from the bill has instead been borrowed, transferred to the state's general fund or redirected to court operations, according to the Judicial Council. This year, AOC reported the Legislature directed that $50 million per year be permanently diverted from court construction to trial court operations — in effect, leaving cash-strapped cities and counties to come up with funding to move forward with their own projects in order to improve their spot in line.
There has been recent rash of such state-level actions that we in western Nevada County have found tough to swallow.
Despite objection from the Nevada County Transportation Commission in February, California's agency responsible for highway projects forged ahead in using local funding for the remaining aspects of a Highway 49 renovation to cover an $840,000 project overrun. NCTC had voted to deny the California Department of Transportation's request for the county's $420,000 in state-matching funds to complete the project.
The Nevada County Board of Supervisors drafted a letter last month officially objecting to California's state firefighting agency plans to shift resources from Nevada County to the northern shore of Lake Tahoe. The California Department of Fire and Forestry will move an engine company staff from Station 20 in Nevada City to a station in Carnelian Bay in Placer County. The fact that "a diminished level of service" followed Cal Fire's $150 fire prevention fee assessed to property owners in State Responsibility Areas was not lost on the supervisors.
"So this agency is going to take $150 for no increased level of service, and on top of that, they expect the people of this county to lose another service?" said Chairman Hank Weston, a former fire chief, said in early April. Months earlier, in January, the Los Angeles Times reported that Cal Fire had hidden $3.6 million in collected legal settlements rather than depositing the money into the state's general fund as required. For seven years, the paper reported, the agency paid the California District Attorneys Association to hold the money and used the cash for equipment purchases and training.
And as many western county residents remember all too well, the director of the California Department of Parks and Recreation resigned in 2012 after officials learned the agency had stowed away an estimated $20 million in surplus funding, all the while threatening to close 70 parks statewide — including Malakoff Diggins and South Yuba River state parks — which led to a groundswell of local residents and schoolchildren working feverishly to collect signatures and petition to keep our parks open. In February, a state auditor's report showed state parks officials had maintained a hidden cash surplus for as many as 20 years.
Considering such a recent track record, it makes sense that Nevada City's officials seek to take the immediate fate of its courthouse project into their own hands. Knowing the courthouse's impact on downtown business, the committee has worked with the city to present a plan to renovate on existing land — rather than demolition and new construction — which they believe could cut nearly $40 million from the previously studied $108 million proposed project.
That the city sees the funding of the feasibility study as such a high priority speaks volumes, considering just last year it needed to pass Measure L to raise $380,000 annually through a three-eighths of a cent increase in sales tax.
"Due to the severity and length of the economic downturn with its decreased revenues combined with the state of California taking new portions of our traditional revenues, it has become increasingly difficulty to provide essential city services," city staff wrote in favor of the measure.
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.
"By taking control now and getting this study done," said Bergman, "we increase incredibly the chances of what we want and need."
The weekly Our View column represents the consensus opinion of The Union Editorial Board, a group of editors and writers from The Union, as well as informed community members.