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As if the budget crisis hasn’t caused enough havoc with plans to modernize California’s judicial branch, a new study says half the courthouses surveyed are at risk of severe damage in an earthquake. The Administrative Office of the Courts commissioned the earthquake study pursuant to legislation that lays out how court buildings will be transferred from county to state ownership. “We weren’t surprised by this,” said Kim Davis, acting director of the AOC’s office of court construction. “It’s just part of the overall due diligence that we’re going to have to go through. It’ll help us refine our master plan.” The report is only preliminary, but of 300 court structures included in the study, engineers said only 72 were seismically safe within the AOC’s parameters; 147 were unsafe, and ratings on the remaining 81 are still pending. There are more than 450 court buildings in the state, but many were exempt from the study. The report cautions against drawing too many conclusions from the seismic ratings. Buildings that rated well could still be taken out of commission in a quake, and structures deemed unsafe could come out fine, according to the report. Ratings of individual courthouses were not included in the report because there’s “still a dialogue between the counties and the AOC going on,” Davis said. The seismic ratings will play into the agreements that govern the transfer of buildings from local to state responsibility. Buildings with poor ratings might not be eligible to be transferred unless they are fixed up, Davis said. But, Davis added, the AOC and counties have a lot of options as they negotiate the transfers, including having counties do renovations or having them give the state money for renovations after the takeover. “Certainly we recognize that counties are in a similar fiscal situation as the rest of the state and that could make it difficult for [them] to make repairs,” Davis said. “That’s the nature of the negotiations � to address this in a responsible way that recognizes everybody’s competing demands and limited resources.” The California State Association of Counties, which worked on the original facilities transfer legislation with the AOC, did not return a call seeking comment Friday. Budget shortfalls will also affect what happens after the state assumes full responsibility. The AOC needs money for construction. There is a fund set up to raise construction money from filing fees, and officials had hoped to float a $4.1 billion bond. But because of state cuts, money has been loaned out of the construction fund to cover other costs, and filing fees aren’t being raised as much as expected. And given the current budget climate, the bond is looking less likely, although AOC director William Vickrey said he hasn’t completely lost hope. There are already at least three big bonds scheduled for the spring and fall 2004 ballots, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s $15 billion bailout plan in March. Legislators have said that 2004 just doesn’t look like a good year to float a court bond. But, Vickrey said, “We still need to get the bond issue in front of the public as soon as is practical.” If the budget crisis continues, plans to renovate and build new courthouses, as well as improve security and other projects, will have to be put on the back burner. The transfer of court buildings is scheduled to be finished by June 2007. Davis expects the lack of money won’t delay that date, but will slow down the AOC’s plans to build new courthouses and renovate old ones. At the same time it’s been working on the seismic study, the AOC has also been prioritizing court construction projects throughout the state. AOC officials recently sent 42-page documents to local courts for feedback, and the final priorities list is scheduled to go before the Judicial Council at its meeting at the end of this month. Although there has been some grumbling about the prioritization procedure, Davis said she had not heard any complaints and that feedback was coming in as expected. The report is available at www.courtinfo.ca.gov .

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