Unless state lawmakers can strike a deal before June 15, it appears likely that a $65 million courthouse in Sonora will remain in a state of arrested development for at least another year.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s revised budget proposal released late last week doesn’t include additional funding that would allow the project to begin construction in the next fiscal year from July 1 to June 30, 2018. The California Constitution requires the state Legislature to pass a spending plan each year by June 15.
“Our plan is to lobby all of our legislators to allocate additional money to the Judicial Council (of California) so that projects can go forward,” said Donald Segerstrom, presiding judge of Tuolumne County Superior Court. “It’s a political situation, so the response has to be political.”
In late August, the Judicial Council put the Sonora courthouse project and 16 others throughout the state on hold due to a projected lack of funding to cover the $1.5 billion in total costs.
Six other courthouse projects totaling about $1.3 billion that were under construction at the time were allowed to move forward, including a $555 million courthouse in San Diego that’s slated to open this summer.
All 23 projects were part of an “unprecedented courthouse rebuilding program” created in 2008 by Senate Bill 1407, which directed judicial branch revenues to fund up to $5 billion in lease-revenue bonds for financing new construction and renovation projects.
The lack of funding now stems from the Legislature taking more than $1 billion out of the Judicial Council’s construction fund between 2008 and 2011 to pay for state operations during the Great Recession, in addition to dwindling revenues from court-related fees because of legislation enacted in recent years.
“Until that money is either returned or another income stream is identified, there won’t be enough money to pay back the bonds,” Segerstrom said.
The new courthouse in Sonora was originally planned to break ground this summer and open sometime in late 2019.
It’s considered the centerpiece of the county’s Law and Justice Center, an ambitious plan to build a new county jail, courthouse, juvenile hall, transit hub and administrative buildings on 50 acres just south of where Old Wards Ferry Road crosses over Highway 108.
Segerstrom has referred to the archaic designs of the two existing buildings that house Tuolumne County Superior Court at 60 N. Washington St. and 41 W. Yaney Ave. as a “disaster waiting to happen.”
The 119-year-old historic courthouse on Yaney Avenue contains three flights of 48 marble steps and no elevator, forcing people with disabilities to make special accommodations ahead of time.
The 90-year-old building on Washington Street has two courtrooms that are both accessed via the same narrow hallway, which makes it difficult to separate jurors, victims, witnesses, attorneys, judges and defendants.
While the juvenile hall, jail, transit hub and administrative buildings are projects being handled by the county with the help of $50 million in state grants, the courthouse project would be funded, overseen and managed by the state because trial courts are under state jurisdiction.
Segerstrom said the final plans for the courthouse were submitted to the State Fire Marshal’s Office several months ago and are being reviewed. If the plans are approved, they will have to wait until funding becomes available before moving forward with construction.
The courthouse is planned to be situated close to the new jail so that inmates can be easily transported to and from court appearances. Inmates at the county’s jail on Yaney Avenue are currently transported by van in waves throughout the day to the county’s two existing courthouse buildings a couple blocks away in downtown Sonora.
County officials expect to begin construction on the jail this year. The original plan was for both the jail and courthouse to be completed around the same time in 2019.
“Initially, we thought the state would be ahead of the county,” Segerstrom said. “Now, the county is ahead of the state.”
A delay in the courthouse’s completion would cost the county more money to transport the inmates because the new jail would be located about a mile away from the existing courthouses in downtown Sonora.
Segerstrom said part of the lobbying effort in the coming weeks will involve inviting state lawmakers and officials to the Law and Justice Center campus to help them better understand the urgency.
Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, R-O’Neals, told The Union Democrat that he’s committed to working with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to ensure that courts in his district receive the funding they need for both projects and operations.
“We must stop redirecting court user fees, increase the cap on reserve limits to fund imperative updates to an aging IT system, and allow our courts to repair critical infrastructure projects,” Bigelow said in a written statement sent via e-mail through his press office.
State Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, also responded to a request for comment via e-mail through his press office and blasted Brown’s proposed budget as “just another example Sacramento and the coastal elites casting aside rural California.”
“As always, I will fight for rural California and will continue to educate Sacramento on the importance of rural counties,” Berryhill stated.
Judicial Council spokesman Blaine Corren said the council will continue to meet with lawmakers and people in Brown’s administration to advocate for increased funding for the court system, including courthouse construction.
Despite the lack of money for the courthouse project, there’s still some good news for the county in Brown’s revised budget.
There’s a plan to shift more of the cost to counties for providing a state-mandated home care services program, but the budget revision will allow the county to avoid increases of $500,000 to $700,000 over the next two fiscal years.
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.