State budget

Proposal leaves out $$ for Sonora courthouse

By Alex MacLean, The Union Democrat

Plans to build a new $65 million courthouse in Tuolumne County could remain in limbo for at least another year based on Gov. Jerry Brown’s state budget proposal released Tuesday.

Brown unveiled a nearly $180 billion spending plan through June 30, 2018, that would provide $2.8 billion to the California Judicial Council for state and local trial court operations. However, state officials confirmed Tuesday that the proposal does not include additional money needed for courthouse construction.

“That means that the (judicial) branch has its advocacy cut out for it, as well as the legislators who represent the districts that need courthouses,” said council spokesman Peter Allen in a telephone interview Tuesday.

Brown’s proposed budget opens the door for negotiations with state lawmakers between now and May, when he releases a revised proposal. A final budget must be approved in June.

Local leaders say they plan to push for restoring at least some of the more than $1 billion that was swept from the council’s construction coffers to plug holes in the budget during the financial crisis between 2008 and 2011.

In a written response to the lack of courthouse funding, Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, R-O’Neals, stated that prioritizing funding for the county’s courthouse was “critically important.”

“This is just the initial proposal from Governor Brown,” he stated. “It will be extremely important that the Legislature address the need for resources for courthouse construction across the state throughout upcoming budget subcommittee hearings.”

Despite previously projecting balanced budgets for years to come, Tuesday’s proposal estimates the state will run a $2 billion deficit over the next 18 months. Brown cited declining revenues as a reason for the turnaround.

Revenues for December were about $1.8 billion less than projected in the approved budget for the current fiscal year that runs through June 30, according to a statement from State Controller Betty Yee released Tuesday. She stated that the “big three sources” — personal income, corporate and sales taxes — all came up short of their targets.

Although much smaller than the $27 billion shortfall that lawmakers faced in 2011, Brown stated in a letter to the Legislature that the projected overrun would need to be “promptly eliminated” to prevent from growing into a larger problem.

“In all likelihood, the coming years will bring even worse financial news — either from the start of the next inevitable recession or from changes at the federal level,” Brown stated in the letter. “This uncertainty about the future makes acting responsibly now even more important.”

California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye released a statement Tuesday characterizing the proposed budget for the state’s judicial branch as “prudent,” given the uncertainties.

“The Governor’s proposals would provide funding to offset declines in other revenue, assist with trial court case management systems, and contribute to trial court employee health and retirement benefits costs,” Canti-Sakauaye stated.

State Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, released his own statement Tuesday accusing Brown of turning attention away from existing problems that aren’t being addressed by worrying about ones that have yet to happen.

“The short shrift of courthouse funding is another example of how Sacramento politicians tend to focus on new projects rather than taking care of existing problems,” Berryhill stated. “This is absolutely something I will be working on and pushing for as the budget goes through the legislative process.”

The Judicial Council voted in August to put the Tuolumne County courthouse and 16 other projects throughout the state on hold until more funding becomes available, due to declining revenues from court fees and fines that wouldn’t be able to cover the costs of those projects.

Final plans for the county’s new courthouse are currently under review by state agencies, but the project will not be able to move forward with construction absent additional funding. All of the money would come from the state, which operates the 58 superior courts in each county.

Tuolumne County Superior Court officials say a new courthouse is sorely needed to address the shortcomings of the two existing facilities in downtown Sonora.

The historic courthouse on Yaney Avenue was constructed in the late 1800s, while auxiliary courtrooms are housed in a building on Washington Street that’s pushing 90 years old. Both locations present issues with disability access, security and parking, according to Court Executive Officer Jeanine Tucker.

“We really need a state-of-the-art building,” Tucker said. “Not a Taj Mahal, but just a good, solid new facility that addresses all of the concerns.”

The new courthouse is also designed to serve as the centerpiece of the county’s long-planned Law and Justice Center off Old Wards Ferry Road in Sonora.

Last week, the county celebrated the completion of a $20 million juvenile hall that’s part of the new center. Other facilities planned for the center include a $45 million county jail, administrative buildings and transit hub.

County officials say they are hoping to break ground on the jail this summer after final plans are approved by state and local agencies. Most of the funding for the project comes from $33 million in state grants, with the county planning to cover the rest through borrowing and one-time funds.

District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt said the jail was planned to be constructed in conjunction with the new courthouse because there will be a passageway between the two for transporting inmates to and from court appearances.

The county currently shuttles loads of inmates by van from the Yaney Avenue jail to the two existing courthouses in Sonora.

Delaying construction on the new courthouse would lead to additional costs for the county because inmates would have to be transported about a mile farther than they are now, Hanvelt said.

“We’re not going to be transporting people from our jail a couple of blocks away, we’re going to be transporting people from our jail that’s about a mile away,” he said. “That adds additional cost.”

Hanvelt said the board will “have to get more involved” over the coming months to advocate for the funding.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

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The Union Democrat
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