Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed state budget for the next fiscal year includes funding for the construction of a $65 million courthouse at the Law and Justice Center in Sonora.
Brown unveiled the proposed $132 billion General Fund spending plan for 2018-19 on Wednesday. The proposal commits to completing construction for 10 courthouse projects over the next two years, including the new home for the Tuolumne County Superior Court.
“It is the proposed budget so we are obviously very encouraged that the governor chose to include the construction program,” said Donald Segerstrom, presiding judge of the Tuolumne County Superior Court.
Segerstrom said he and other court officials will be working with State Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, and Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, R-O’Neals, to ensure the funding remains when Brown’s revises his proposal in May and ultimately the approved budget in June.
The proposal is the first sign of potential progress since a lack of money forced the California Judicial Council to put the the project and 15 others throughout the state on hold in late August 2016.
Brown’s proposal would give the state Judicial Branch $4.2 billion for the fiscal year beginning July 1 and ending June 30, 2019, about $1.4 billion more than the current fiscal year.
Segerstrom said he was grateful for Brown’s decision as well as Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, chief justice of the Judicial Council, and all of the other judges who have lobbied the executive branch to include the funding.
“In terms of the Law and Justice Center concept, it’s a very important decision by the governor,” Segerstrom said.
First conceived in the early 2000s, the Law and Justice Center located off Old Wards Ferry Road in Sonora is beginning to take shape with last year’s opening of the $20 million Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Facility, a $2 million transit hub and next month’s groundbreaking for a $40 million county jail.
The center’s layout was designed to have the courthouse as the centerpiece, with a secured pathway between the jail for transporting inmates to court appearances.
While the juvenile hall, transit hub and jail were funded through a mix of state grants and more than $20 million from the county, the courthouse is entirely funded by the state because trial courts in all 58 counties are part of the Judicial Branch.
Both the jail and courthouse are also designed by the same architectural firm, Lionakis.
A groundbreaking ceremony for the new jail, which is being called the Sheriff J.H. “Jack” Dambacher Detention Center, is scheduled at noon on Feb. 6.
“We want to work as closely as possible in the construction of the two facilities so they can work as harmoniously as they can together,” Segerstrom said.
Brown’s proposed budget would commit to getting construction on the new courthouse started sometime in the 2018-19 fiscal year, though an exact timeline isn’t set at this point.
If the funding remains in the final budget, Segerstrom said he anticipates construction would move forward after the state sells the lease revenue bonds to pay for the project. The state typically holds two bond sales a year, one in spring and one in fall, though officials were still uncertain when those for the courthouse would occur.
Judicial Council spokesman Blaine Corren said the originally targeted completion date for the project has been pushed back from winter 2020 to February 2021, as long as the funding remains in the final budget.
Jeanine Tucker, executive officer of Tuolumne County Superior Court, said the final plans for the courthouse have been completed and approved by all of the required state agencies, including the State Fire Marshal’s Office, the Division of the State Architect, and the Board of State and Community Corrections.
Courtrooms are currently housed in two separate buildings in downtown Sonora, both of which are old, antiquated and lack appropriate accommodations for people with disabilities.
The Historic Tuolumne County Courthouse at 41 Yaney Ave. was originally built in 1898, while the one at 60 N. Washington St. was constructed in 1927 and previously housed a Chrysler dealership.
Officials have said the three-story courthouse on Yaney Avenue presents a number of safety risks, including to inmates who are shuffled up the 48 marble steps in shackles to the largest courtroom on the top floor due to the lack of an elevator.
A physically disabled woman once tried to crawl up steps to attend an adoption hearing on the top floor, according to Segerstrom. Hearings are typically moved to the bottom floor for people with disabilities upon request.
The courthouse on Washington Street that was formerly a Chrysler dealership also includes one narrow hallway that everyone must use to enter and exit, including victims, defendants, judges and lawyers, presenting a risk of a possible altercation or incident.
Tucker said modern courthouses also have secure passageways for judges, though the ones in Sonora do not.
“It’s not up to health and safety standards and just inadequate in so many ways,” Tucker said.
The new courthouse as designed would be about 61,000 square feet and have five courtrooms, as well as meet all of the modern ADA, health and safety requirements.
Segerstrom has said that the plan is to retain some court operations at the Yaney Avenue courthouse, such as family law, small claims and ceremonies. There’s also potential for moving some county offices in the courthouse, which used to house the assessor and county clerk.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.