Courthouse plan survives cutoff for state funding

By Victor A. Patton / vpatton@mercedsun-star.comSeptember 14, 2012 

Plans to build the Los Banos courthouse weren't included on a list of statewide courthouse projects recommended for cold storage by a state committee recently, clearing another hurdle for the Los Banos project to eventually move forward.

When the courthouse will actually come to fruition, however, still remains unclear.

Last week the Court Facilities Working Group, the committee overseeing courthouse projects, recommended seven courthouse projects to be "indefinitely delayed," placing them on the lowest priority rung for state funding.

The Los Banos courthouse project was among 23 projects receiving the committee's thumbs up to move forward, subject to "funding availability and other considerations," according to a statement from the Judicial Council of California, Administrative Office of the Courts.

Courthouse projects placed on the indefinitely delayed list included Delano, Mojave, Glendale, Santa Clarita, South Monterey County, Plumas County and Placer County. Those recommendations will be reviewed by the state's Judicial Council on Oct. 26.

Prior to the committee's recommendations, officials representing areas on the new courthouse list gave presentations during the committee's meeting at the Administrative Office of the Courts in San Francisco.

Each court official justified the need for the project. Merced County Superior Court Presiding Judge Brian McCabe spoke on behalf of the Los Banos courthouse project and gave a PowerPoint presentation that included renderings from architects, according to Linda Romero-Soles, court executive officer of Merced County Superior Court.

Some projects on hold

Committee officials say because of $544 million in state cuts to the judicial branch, some projects had to be put on hold.

Romero-Soles, who sat on the Court Facilities Working Group committee, said she feels bad for those projects that have been indefinitely delayed.

"But there's only so much money that can go around," she said.

As a member of the committee, Romero-Soles couldn't vote on the Los Banos courthouse project, since it's in her county.

Court officials in July said the plans to build the Los Banos courthouse would be postponed for at least a year, because Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature cut court system funds to help address the state's $16 billion deficit.

Romero-Soles said the timeline for the building of the Los Banos project depends on the state's fiscal crisis, and whether a tax initiative on the November ballot gets the support of voters.

"We're kind of waiting to see what's going to happen," Romero-Soles said.

Merced County court officials recently scaled back the $31.8 million Los Banos Courthouse project to $24 million, due to the lack of state funding available.

A need in Los Banos

Romero-Soles said the new courthouse at G Street and Mercey Springs Road is necessary because Los Banos handles 36 percent of the county's criminal cases and handles an average of 350 visitors per day, but is limited in services due to size constraints.

For example, the current Robert M. Falasco Justice Center at 445 I St. has no holding facilities for violent offenders, and one of the lowest seismic ratings possible.

The current courtroom is only 1,136 square feet, while the average courtroom is 1,600 to 2,400 square feet, Romero-Soles said.

The size of the existing Los Banos courthouse also doesn't allow for jury trials or family court hearings -- those must be handled at the Merced courthouse.

The existing courthouse occupies about 5,370 square feet of its 15,000-square-foot building. The one-courtroom structure is owned by Merced County and is also shared by the Sheriff's Department, Probation Department, county clerk and 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 facility, which was built in 1980.

The new courthouse would be 29,511 square feet on a 4.4 acre site, Romero-Soles said.

City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.

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