Funding for a $65 million new courthouse in Sonora remains in the proposed state budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year, meaning construction could begin as soon as next spring pending one last hurdle.
Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday released his “May revision” of the budget that he originally proposed in January, which at the time included funding for the Sonora courthouse and others that were placed on hold in 2016.
“I am cautiously optimistic,” said Donald Segerstrom, presiding judge of Tuolumne County Superior Court.
Segerstrom added that there’s still “a lot of negotiating” to be done between now and June 15, when California lawmakers are required pass the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 in order to continue receiving a paycheck.
All of the funding for the project will come directly from the state’s coffers because superior courts are controlled by the state as opposed to counties.
If all goes according to plan, Segerstrom said the state Department of Finance would move forward with a bond sale in the fall and bidding would begin for a contractor sometime after that to begin construction next spring.
Segerstrom said both buildings that currently house the court in downtown Sonora are antiquated and in need of replacement.
The three-story Historic Tuolumne County Courthouse at 41 Yaney Ave. lacks an elevator for people with disabilities, as well as other modern features to keep prisoners in custody separated from victims, witnesses, jurors and the rest of the general public.
“Prisoners are walked through hallways with victims and witnesses, shackled and going up three flights of stairs,” he said. “A juror in a wheelchair can’t serve in Dept. 1 (on the third floor), so we have to move the whole courtroom downstairs.”
A former Chrysler dealership constructed in 1927 at 60 N. Washington St. houses two other courtrooms and features only one narrow hall leading to them both.
Segerstrom also noted the current courthouses in downtown Sonora also lack dedicated parking, which can create headaches for those fulfilling jury duty.
“Neither of these buildings is modern or efficient,” he said.
The Judicial Council of California said the revised budget not only includes funding for the projects that were previously placed on hold, but also hundreds of millions more for courthouse construction projects that were slated to begin in the 2019-2020 fiscal year.
State lawmakers previously took more than $1 billion from the council’s fund for courthouse construction projects to plug holes in the budget as a result of the 2008 recession, though the money was never returned.
“Judicial Branch construction funds played a role in supporting the overall state budget during the Great Recession, but the need remained for these local infrastructure projects,” said Martin Hoshino, administrative director of the Judicial Council. “It is gratifying to see that our shared ongoing commitment to collaboration and the meeting the needs of Californians has resulted in more of these critical courthouse projects moving forward — it’s a very positive investment in California’s infrastructure needs, both for new construction and ongoing maintenance.”
The new home for Tuolumne County Superior Court is considered the centerpiece of the county’s Law and Justice Center off Old Wards Ferry Road in Sonora, which has been in development since the early 2000s.
The center also includes the $20 million Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Facility that opened in last April and $40 million new county jail that’s under construction. State grants covered $49 million of the construction costs for those projects, while the county is borrowing money to cover most of the rest.
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