Dear State Legislators and Governor-Elect Jerry Brown

Posted on December 5, 2010

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California is in dire straights financially. And yet we permitted penalty assessments that were previously going to state coffers to be re-worked to go to fund the judicial branch’s ambitious construction goals. When the AOC was preparing to accept the buildings during transfer, they were doing precious little to actually plan and prepare for this transition. There has been precious little change that has taken place in the planning arena to such a degree that years of deferred maintenance under county control is turning out to be additional years of deferred maintenance under the AOC. While the majority of these funds have been earmarked for new construction and new courthouses across California, there is no question that these courthouses are coming in at two to three times what it costs the federal government to build the same courthouse. Whereas the federal government wins international architectural awards for their palaces of justice, the AOC touts the same federal palaces of justice in their own construction programs and then turns around and builds plain, boring, nondescript buildings that have a palace of justice price tag but a section 8 look and feel about them. And they build these buildings in places where they are not really needed or wanted.

To initially qualify for this funding, the AOC presented a project priority list with its hand extended out to the legislature. After the legislation, the AOC altered that priority list to construct courthouses where there was only a marginal need in some cases and in other cases, there was no need at all. There are already ample courthouses for the populace of the county. Plumas is such a county. The recipient of two new courthouse awards, few people outside of Plumas know that Plumas already has a brand new courthouse built by the county in Quincy – So why do they need another new courthouse in Quincy when they already have a new one down the road and another new courthouse in Loyalton that, due to limited manpower, has limited service hours?   

To top it off, the legislature gave the AOC 5 billion dollars with no strings attached and a blanket exemption from public contract code for the projects and the people that run them. Let’s be clear – the AOC’s office of court construction & management is not the judiciary and there is no logical reason for them to be exempt from public contract code. And if you wish to analyze what happens when you exempt them from public contract code, all you have to do is refer back to your last hearing of the Assembly Committee on Accountability & Administrative Review and what it costs to change a single light bulb, or scrape gum off a sidewalk or to empty an ash tray.

We the undersigned are calling for a courthouse construction moratorium until such time that the legislature can revisit the rules that the AOC must live by in constructing these facilities. Because while you gave the AOC six long years to create their own “policies and procedures” to stand in the stead of public contract code, these policies and procedures do not have the force of law to back them up nor do they resemble in any way, shape or form the contents of public contract code intended to protect the taxpayers from unscrupulous contractors.

We suggest that moratorium monies be spent on catching up on the incredible backlog of maintenance on existing buildings prior to new buildings being built and that some of these penalty assessments be directed back to the general fund to pay down the debt or even court operating expenses for a number of years. We suggest that OCCM’s mission be re-worked so that the courts have more local control over their facilities and projects and that the AOC have less control until such time they are operating under laws with real consequences and not merely policies and procedures with no teeth.

The choice is ultimately up to the state legislature and the governor-elect. But to turn your backs on a viable revenue stream and not address the issues will only serve to worsen the states already bleak financial picture and does little to help the judiciary accomplish its mission.

The AOC touts jobs being created by construction and calculates that for every $76,000.00 spent on a courthouse, that a job is created. This is not true. In many cases, millions are being spent to acquire real estate to build the buildings on specific lots and in specific places where the land underneath should cost a small fraction of what is being paid for it. But no one is permitted to investigate these irregularities or question the processes because separation of powers is more important than checks and balances.

Please consider a total moratorium on courthouse construction for the next 5 years on anything that has not already broken ground. It will allow the AOC to concentrate on current projects without stuffing too much in the pipeline all at once,  resulting in a better product and it will allow the legislature to determine if a smarter approach would be to make OCCM a division of DGS, where all state buildings are currently constructed and managed. Sure, this won’t be popular with the OCCM folks that came from DGS but this isn’t about them. It’s about a 26.5 billion dollar deficit this current fiscal year and the comparatively low hanging fruit that you can grab to reduce the pain.