Tuolumne County could be on the hook for as much as $200,000 per year, if not more, when the $65 million state-funded courthouse at the Law and Justice Center in Sonora opens in 2021.
The news was relayed to the elected Board of Supervisors during an update on the status of the budget presented by County Administrator Tracie Riggs, who is currently working to eliminate a $4.2 million deficit for the current fiscal year that runs through June 30.
It’s called a “county facilities payment” under California law, and it’s required to be paid by counties whenever court operations move from a facility they own and maintain into one that’s owned and maintained by the state.
That will happen when the Tuolumne County Superior Court moves from the existing courthouses at 41 Yaney Avenue and 60 N. Washington St. in downtown Sonora to the new one under construction at the Law and Justice Center.
“When the state takes over and provides a courthouse, and takes away the responsibility and cost from the county, the state says, ‘Well, you have to chip in now,’ “ explained Hector Gonzalez, the court executive officer at Tuolumne County Superior Court.
Gonzalez said the total payment is calculated based on the square footage of the court space that the county will no longer have to maintain and what will be provided by the state.
Government Code Section 70353(a) states that counties are required to submit one-quarter of the payment every three months to the State Controller’s Office.
The state receives a total of about $116 million in such payments from counties each year.
Riggs told the board the estimated amount that the county could have to pay — $200,000 — was based on the minimum payment she’s seen for other counties, though it could end up being higher or lower than that.
Officials from the California Judicial Council did not respond to a request for the estimated amount Wednesday afternoon.
Gonzalez noted that the county’s payment to the state could be offset, at least in part, by the amount it no longer has to spend on maintenance at the old facilities when the court moves out.
“In a sense, it should be a wash,” he said. “What the county no longer has to worry about paying for at the current court locations should subsidizing the amount they are now contributing to the state.”
The exact amount paid by the county to maintain the two existing courthouses was unavailable on Wednesday.
One of the key factors in determining that annual payment will be what the county decides to do with old courthouses.
If the county continues hosting some court operations at the old facilities, it would reduce the amount they have to pay the state each year.
Gonzalez said they are in “very preliminary discussions” with the county about continuing to use at least part of the historic courthouse on Yaney Avenue, which was constructed at the turn of the 20th century.
Part of the argument for building a new courthouse was due to both existing courthouses being outdated, cramped and lacking modern accessibility features for people with disabilities, though Gonzalez said at least one courtroom could still be used at the Yaney Avenue courthouse.
“There would be, I think, some value in terms of having a location that has some historic value to have ceremonial proceedings,” such as when judges are sworn in,” he said.
Gonzalez also said the old courthouse could house some technology equipment as a backup data center, while the additional courtroom could also come in handy when cases pile up.
The new courthouse will contain five courtrooms, the same amount as the two existing courthouses combined.
“Believe it or not, we sometimes run out of courtrooms depending on how much we’ve got going on,” he said.
Gonzalez was hired to be Tuolumne County Superior Court’s court executive officer in February. He previously worked in the same role for Mono County Superior Court, where he oversaw the transition into a new state-owned courthouse in Mammoth Lakes in 2011.
The opportunity to help Tuolumne County Superior Court transition into a new facility was one of the reasons Gonzalez said he wanted the job.
“I find it both challenging and very satisfying,” he said. “We’re going to go from a horse-and-buggy to a Ferrari in terms of the way we work and how we’ll be able to serve the public.”
Construction was delayed by about five weeks due to the amount of rainfall in winter and spring this year, but Gonzalez said the contractors have since made up the lost time.
The courthouse is on schedule to be completed by March or April 2021, though the exact timeline of the transition into the new facility is still being worked out.
In the meantime, Gonzalez said he will continue working with the county on a plan for the historic courthouse on Yaney Avenue.
“The state Judicial Council has asked about what’s going on with the old courthouse, potentially due to figuring out the payment,” he said. “We defer to the county on this because it’s their building, it’s their decision, and we trust they’ll make the call when they need to.”
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