Friday, Jul. 13, 2012
Courthouse plan left in limbo
Governor, legislature put money toward the deficit
By Corey Pride / Cpride@losbanosenterprise.com
Plans for a new courthouse in Los Banos have been placed on hold for at least a year as Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature redirect court system funding toward closing California's budget deficit.
H.D. Palmer, California Department of Finance deputy director for external affairs, said as part of a deal to reduce the state's $15.7 billion deficit, Brown and the Legislature decreased funding to the court system by $486 million, including $240 million from its operations budget. He said in the recently passed state budget, the Legislature agreed to replace the $240 million with funding from the court system's $300 million construction budget.
With only $60 million left for courthouse construction throughout the state, more than a dozen projects in the planning stages -- such as the relocation of Los Banos' Robert M. Falasco Justice Center from Fifth Street to G Street and Mercey Springs Road -- have been placed on hold for the next year.
Although it's uncertain if the one-year halt to courthouse construction will be extended, Palmer said, politicians will have to consider it in the next fiscal year.
"That's something the governor and state Legislature will have to look at," Palmer said. "That's why it's only a one-year pause, not five years."
Palmer also said beginning in 2013-14 the state plans to decrease the court system's allocation by $125 million annually, $50 million from the construction budget and $75 million from operations.
State Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, said he did not vote for the budget because of cuts to education and other areas such as the court system.
"The court system is an equal branch of government and we're withholding funds from them to do their constitutional duty. We say we care about public safety and education, and that's what's getting cut in this budget," Cannella said.
Teresa Ruano, California Administrative Office of the Courts spokeswoman, said the Legislature has directed an operational study be conducted to determine if the court system is operating in the most efficient manner and whether the new courthouses being planned are necessary. Ruano said she does not yet have a timeline for the study.
The Robert M . Falasco Justice Center occupies about 5,370 square feet of its 15,000-square-foot building. The one-courtroom structure is owned by Merced County and is shared by the Merced County Sheriff's Department, probation department, the county clerk and the public defender. The district attorney's office is in a portable building at the rear of the permanent structure. A feasibility report identified numerous deficiencies at the existing facility, which was built in 1980.
In 2009, the state authorized $32.6 million be spent on construction of a new court facility with two courtrooms and room to expand to four.
Councilman Tom Faria said the decision to postpone the construction was unfortunate but there's not much that can be done about the state's decision.
Merced County Supervisor Jerry O'Banion expressed his disappointment.
"We all know what shape the state is in," O'Banion said. "I'm disappointed that it's not going forward. It may take a year or two but hopefully the construction will happen."
Enterprise staff writer Corey Pride can be reached at 388-6563 or email@example.com.