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Lawmaker Promises 'Hard Look' at Long Beach Courthouse DealBut Senator Noreen Evans, whose district is due three new courthouses, isn't demanding that bill for "private-public" project be paid from general fund.
2012-12-12 04:58:08 PM
SACRAMENTO The chair of the state Senate Judiciary Committee said Wednesday that the Legislature "is going to take a hard look at" the troubled Long Beach courthouse financing agreement that has placed funding for 23 other projects around the state in jeopardy.
"There will be the inevitable questions," said state Senator Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa. "I'm not saying I have the answers. I'm just saying there will be questions."
Evans' North Coast senate district is home to three planned courthouse projects in Sonoma, Ukiah and Lake counties that may be delayed or even shelved after the Judicial Council's Court Facilities Working Group meets Thursday. The group's chairman, Fifth District Court of Appeal Administrative Presiding Justice Brad Hill, said members must slash $600 million in funding from other projects to free up money for the new Long Beach courthouse.
The 31-courtroom Governor George Deukmejian Courthouse in Long Beach is being built under a novel public-private partnership model. A consortium of companies will finance, construct and maintain the downtown building, expected to open next fall, and the Judicial Council will pay an annual service fee over the next 35 years. The first full-year fee is expected to total $54.1 million.
The plan, pushed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's office and approved by the Legislature in the 2007 budget, assumed the state's general fund would cover the payments. But this summer state Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, told judiciary leaders not to count on any money coming from the overburdened general fund. They should instead rely on an internal judiciary construction fund, Leno said.
The state has already swept and borrowed millions from that fund, leading the Judicial Council to reduce the list of once-planned 41 new and renovated courthouse projects to 23. The reductions will continue anew on Thursday as Hill's group works to get its recommended cuts to the full Judicial Council by January.
Sonoma County Superior Court Presiding Judge Rene Chouteau, who is hoping plans for a new Santa Rosa criminal courthouse will be salvaged, called Thursday's meeting premature.
"The fundamental question is, why isn't the state meeting its obligation to fund this out of the general fund?" Chouteau said.
Many advocates of the original 2007 Long Beach deal have been termed out of office. The Legislature's many new members are likely unaware of the arrangement and even those who were in office probably don't remember much about the details. Evans, a state assemblywoman in 2007, said she needed to refresh her memory on the plan.
"It's just another problematic legacy of the Schwarzenegger administration," she said. "I know the Legislature is going to take a hard look at it when it returns in January."
Evans would not commit to seeking general fund money for the Long Beach courthouse, noting the many other demands on the state's biggest source of discretionary funding.
The problem for Chouteau and others hoping to hang on to the endangered 23 projects is that the Long Beach courthouse will consume a larger piece of any construction money pie. Unlike traditional projects that comprise only a new courthouse, the Long Beach agreement includes costs for ongoing maintenance and building services.
"It's a huge commitment for a project that is unrelated to the" 23 other planned courthouses, Chouteau said. "It's just like apples and oranges."
The presiding judge said Sonoma County has already committed $11 million toward preparing the site of the future Santa Rosa courthouse. He's not sure what he would tell county leaders if judicial funding evaporates.
"We've worked 10 years to replace our criminal courthouse," he said. "We're one of the courts that are unsafe because of security reasons, because of seismic reasons. This is not a fun-to-do project .… It seems a little unfair to pull the rug out from underneath it at this point."