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Darrell Berkheimer: Analyzing courthouse costs

It was only a couple days before I was scheduled to leave on a week-long trip when I read about the projected costs for the three alternatives to modernizing Nevada County Courthouse operations. So I’ve had plenty of time since then for additional analysis of the proposals.

And I’ve been asking myself whether anyone in their right mind can — without a twinge of guilt — advocate spending $48 million to $75 million more on a project that will provide a less satisfactory result?

The state’s Judicial Council study projected the costs for the three alternatives at $172 million for a new, relocated building; $220 million to remodel the existing building; and $247 million for a complete rebuild at the existing site.

Apparently a fourth suggestion, repeated by a few folks, including a couple of attorneys, has received little or no attention from the city, the county or the Judicial Council. That suggestion would relocate the criminal court activities elsewhere while retaining the civil court operations at Nevada City.

That made more sense to me than trying to maintain all operations at the present courthouse. But it would necessitate a duplication of ancillary services, such as two business offices with two sets of business personnel and equipment.

So I can understand why that suggestion has not gained any attention of the Judicial Council, even though it could be a compromise that retained a substantial amount of operations and employee services in Nevada City.

Meanwhile, the Judicial Council has delayed the decision on its choice. That in turn will delay indefinitely how soon the state will provide cash for the project, and likely will increase costs as prices for materials and wages continue to climb.

The Judicial Council’s study recognized that relocating the courthouse would account for a loss of $2.4 million in annual sales by downtown businesses, including $1.8 million in lost restaurant revenue.

On that issue, I consider the comments by Richard Sciaroni — at the bottom of The Union’s May 12 online story — to be most pertinent.

He wrote: “Seems the Nevada City boosters want to spend somewhere between $50 million to $70 million in order to keep $2.4 million going into downtown city businesses. Almost all of that added cost would come from taxpayers who would see little if any benefit going to them. The courthouse serves all of Nevada County, not merely Nevada City.

“While I understand the city’s desire to keep the courthouse and revenues in place, it is the least attractive choice in terms of cost, efficiency of operation and access. Spending so much more money is not a wise use of the taxpayers’ money.”

In addition to Sciaroni’s assessment, I take issue with the report that Nevada City faces an annual loss of $2.4 million if the courthouse is relocated.

With the courthouse property then becoming available, and courthouse parking shifted elsewhere, the city will have three opportunities to recoup much of that loss.

The first opportunity will occur immediately as more downtown parking spaces will be open — because they no longer will be gobbled up by courthouse employees, clients and patrons. Open parking spaces will attract many of us to patronize the city more often.

I frequently have declined to meet with someone in Nevada City because of the lack of parking. And I know that many others have had a similar attitude.

As a retiree, I frequently enjoy meeting with one or two others for coffee, brunch or lunch. And it’s a social activity that I believe is quite important to many retirees, who account for one-third of Nevada County’s population.

The only times others have been able to get me to meet them in Nevada City were doing warmer weather months when I could ride my motor scooter. Even then parking has been a problem — with just my scooter.

A second opportunity to recoup some of that lost business would be the initiation of a city shuttle service from the relocated courthouse and Rood Center.

And a third opportunity the city will have to rejuvenate downtown business sales is to get busy attracting one or more commercial operations to occupy the courthouse property.

That’s where Nevada City should be putting its efforts — beginning immediately.

Doing that would be much better than wasting time and money in efforts to keep the courthouse where it is, which will never be a fully satisfactory situation for either the county or 95 percent of its citizens.

It’s time for Nevada City to see the handwriting on the wall. I doubt the state will approve wasting those additional millions of dollars on an inferior structure. So the city should be thinking out of the box on how best to make that courthouse property serve the city’s future.

Darrell Berkheimer, who lives in Grass Valley, is a frequent contributor to The Union. He has nine books available through Amazon. His two “Essays” books include nearly 120 columns published by The Union, plus a variety of travel and photo essays. Contact him at mtmrnut@yahoo.com.


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