Courthouse plan for Los Banos in flux

By J.N. Sbranti / Jsbranti@modbee.comDecember 6, 2012 

A new obstacle may derail plans to build courthouses in Los Banos, Modesto and Sonora.

State officials revealed Monday that they may shift $600 million away from courthouse construction projects to cover the leasing costs for a new privately built Long Beach courthouse.

That unexpected expense would reduce how much could be spent to construct courthouses elsewhere in California, including the $32.2 million Los Banos courthouse, $278.3 million Modesto courthouse and the $69.2 million Sonora courthouse. Those three projects -- and 21 others previously approved -- will be re-evaluated Thursday and some of them may get cut.

Brian McCabe, presiding judge of the Merced County Superior Court, called the news "disappointing," particularly because community support for the Los Banos project has been very strong. McCabe said Los Banos' project was previously ranked around No. 12 among the approved courthouse projects statewide. If that status holds, McCabe said there would still be a number of projects lower on the list than the Los Banos project.

Linda Romero Soles, executive officer for Merced County Superior Court, said courthouse projects that aren't slated for construction in 2013, like the Los Banos project, are in jeopardy. Still, Romero Soles said the Los Banos project is further along than some of the others.

"The property (in Los Banos) has already been purchased. Some projects, like our neighboring counties, they haven't even purchased property," she said.

The Robert M . Falasco Justice Center in Los Banos 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 and the public defender. A feasibility report identified numerous deficiencies at the existing facility, which was built in 1980.

In 2009, the state authorized $32.6 million (since reduced to $32.2 million) be spent on construction of a new court facility with two courtrooms and room to expand to four.

"The (judicial) branch has a responsibility to move forward with only the projects that we can afford," Appellate Court Justice Brad Hill wrote Monday in an e-mail to courts administrators in counties that have construction projects pending. Hill heads the facilities group overseeing courthouse construction.

"Ultimately, the Judicial Council will need to decide which projects must be indefinitely delayed to accommodate funding the new courthouse in Long Beach out of SB 1407 funds," Hill said.

Senate Bill 1407, signed into law in 2008, designated judicial branch revenues to finance up to $5 billion in courthouse construction bonds. New court fees, penalties and assessments were supposed to be used to pay off those bonds.

But nearly $1.5 billion from those courthouse construction fees has been borrowed, transferred to the state's general fund or redirected to court operations.

The state's general fund was expected to cover the Long Beach courthouse leasing costs, but now SB 1407 funds may get stuck with that expense, too.

The state's Court Facilities Working Group will meet Thursday in San Francisco to decide which courthouse construction projects must get slashed.

Councilman Tom Faria, who represents the City Council on the committee monitoring the relocation of the Los Banos courthouse, said he will not be deterred by possible delays. He said he will continue to emphasize the need for a new courthouse in Los Banos to state government and judicial officials.

"We're going to continue working for it. No decision has been made. It's the old, 'it ain't over 'til it's over,' " Faria said.

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