Why New Courthouses, Indeed?

Finally!!  An article in the media that zeroes in on what critics of the AOC have been saying for years.  A government agency that has grown exponentially over the years into an one with misguided spending priorities on questionable projects, with a lack of transparency as to its spending, and a voracious appetite to seize all monies and power from local county courts.  And at the same time this agency is perceived by many to be deaf and impervious to any and all questions, suggestions, or criticisms.  We’ll just take your monies, thank you.  Keep your ideas where they belong.  To yourselves.

Howard Mintz  wrote a great piece for the Mercury News that lays it all out for everyone to read.

  • The agency has ballooned in size, cost, power and stature in recent years, reaching its peak at a time when the rest of California government is struggling with budget deficits and cutbacks in everything from education to programs for the poor and elderly. From 2004 through last year, the AOC’s budget nearly doubled to more than $220 million per year, and it has gone from a relatively unknown bureaucracy of 490 employees to 901 employees, a third of whom make at least $100,000 per year.
  • the AOC’s rapid growth nevertheless has fueled a backlash from judges and court employees across the state upset with this summer’s unprecedented decision by the powerful Judicial Council, the policymaking arm of the courts, to shutter courthouses one day per month to save money, a move judicial leaders didn’t make even during the Great Depression.
  • A review of the AOC’s budget shows that it has expanded dramatically as a bureaucracy. The agency’s central administrative budget went from about $101 million in 2004-05 to $142 million last year; it is expected to be cut about $6 million in the next year, but that would still leave the AOC with a budget that exceeds every other year in its existence.
  • A 2002 law also created a separate, equally expensive part of the AOC devoted solely to running, and building, courthouses, shifting those costs from county government to the state. That part of the AOC budget has gone from $14.7 million five years ago to a projected $170 million next year, as money kicks in to build new courthouses.

And what is Justice Ronald George’s response to all of this?

“The AOC is by and large very efficiently run and provides services for the courts,” George said. “Growth by itself without knowing why the growth occurred isn’t a valid criticism.”

A-Mazing!  That’s our point Justice George!  How the heck are we supposed to know whether the growth of the AOC is valid or necessary if we don’t even know WHY it’s grown.

In its defense the AOC claims that one of the reasons why its budget has grown is because it has taken over the care of all the courthouses throughout the state.

Ronald Overholt, the AOC’s deputy director, notes that the AOC had to hire scores of staff to handle the task, which includes fielding 6,000 phone calls a month from courts around the state needing help with everything from leaky roofs to broken plumbing. And with courthouse bond money already approved to build new courthouses in many counties, including a new family court in Santa Clara County, many judges say they are grateful the AOC is doing the work.

Of course this has nothing to dissuade critics of the AOC.

“As nice as it seems to get new courthouses, it seems foolish to build new courthouses when we can’t keep the ones we have open,” said Kim Palmer, chief union steward for Santa Clara County’s court workers, who are quarreling with the judges over the one-day-per-month furlough program.

“They have a lot of power,” said Sacramento Superior Court Judge Loren McMaster, another AOC critic. “There should be a top-down audit of what all these people do.”

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11 responses to “Why New Courthouses, Indeed?

  1. The AOC is in full protection mode. This is the first real and honest attack on their artificial arguments in years, if ever. Sure, they have grown and use the excuse of “well the trial courts need us and we have to do this.” This is curious. They demanded that they take over responsibilites from the trial courts and take over the courthouses and then tell the Legislature that they now have to do it. They then whine that they have too much to do and not enough resources.

    This group has NO idea how to run a trial court. Their cast of lackeys do as they are told and some judges go out of their way to curry the Chief and Bill Vickery’s favor. One only needs to look at who they turn to for postive press when they get attacked. these are the selgfannointed and AOC rewarded.

    EVERYTHING negative thing being said about the AOC is true! Many of us know that. No matter how the AOC tries to spin it, the truth remains: It is a bloated and arrogant bureaucracy. Need proof: Anyone hear Bill Vickery’s rant to the PJ’s and Excutive Officers this week? Ask around. you will find it amusing and somewhat sad.

  2. Part of the AOC’s master plan was to shift responsibility for court facilities from the counties to the state. It appears however, the AOC made some major concessions in order to achieve this goal.

    – The transfer legislation requiresthe county to make an annual “County Facility Payment” or CFP to the state to cover ongoing facility maintenance. In theory this seems fair and the legislation was supposed to be “revenue neutral” and neither party was supposed to benefit financially. However, the legislation relieved the county of a huge liability because:

    – The CFP was based on average annual maintenance costs for the 5 year period 1995 – 2000. A major component cost used as a factor in calculating the payment were utilities. Therefore, the payment did not account for the huge increase in energy prices that occurred after 2000.

    – Once trial court funding passed in 1997, courthouses became the counties’ ugly step-children. Not surprisingly, the counties were reluctant to spend much money to maintain facilities they knew would ultimately transfer to the state. The legislation basically required the AOC to accept a building for transfer unless it was seismically unsafe or presented a health and safety problem. The Counties were able to continue to defer maintenance on these buildings for an additional 4 or 5 years. (While the transfer legislation passed in 2003, transfers did not occur until 2007 and most occurred in 2008)

    – The County Facility Payment does not factor in inflation. Therefore, although the costs of maintaining facilities has increased since 2000 and will continue to increase in the future, the county’s obligation will remain constant.

    – The primary reason for the AOC’s push to take over facilites was the counties lacked sufficient funds to maintain courthouses and build new ones. However, because the standards for a building to transfer were so minimal, the AOC basically accepted the buildings in an “as-is” condition and assumed full liability for deferred maintenance.

    – The AOC had no experience in the management of 500 facilities spread throughout the state. The staff and administration did not exist. Currently, most faciltiy maintenance is performed by contract maintenance companies rather than AOC employees. Another factor in CFP calculation was the cost to the county in terms of its staff to maintain teh courthouses. I am relatively confident that the hourly rate the AOC pays its maintenance vendors is much higher than what the county paid its own employees to perform the same services. This does not take into account the AOC’s administrative cost of overseeing the vendors’ contract and work.

    – Based on the above, it is very doubtful the aggregate CFPs are sufficient to cover the annual maintenance costs of the transferred facilities.

    – The AOC argues the huge increase in its budget is the result of having to assume responsibility for facilities. To the extent the cost of maintaining the facilities exceeds the CFPs, the AOC has been hoisted on its own petard. As noted, the AOC felt it was necessary to assume the facility obligation because the buildings had been allowed to deterioate while under county control. Unfortunately, the AOC let the counties off the hook by not structuring the transfer legislation in such a way that the basic maintenance of the buildings was covered. The AOC got what it knowingly bargained for – a huge liability.

    – To the extent CFPs are inadequate, the AOC will have to cover maintenace using funds that would otherwise be available to support trial court operations.

    • Of course this is a horrible deal for the AOC. But the mindset was to “acquire at all costs.” Once the process began, and even though many knew it was a bad deal for the State, the AOC pushed acquistion because, quite bluntly, every king needs a kingdom. Those of us that heard the Chief speak knew that this was his kingdom and he would hear no dissent from the “company” line. So the AOC becomes the biggest landlord for the State and possesses insufficient revenure to service the buildings. Then you add on the need for new courthouse construction and a massive facilities deficit is apparent (and a huge new work force created to service the buidlings). Oh, and then you add cuts in trial court operations money and you have a kingdom that cannot keep its ships afloat, cannot build new ships and cannot pay to operate the kingdom. Anyone know how the Spanish Empire fell?

  3. CORRECTION

    I wanted to correct some of the statements made in my earlier comment –

    – The utility portion of the CFP was adjusted by inflation. The adjustement period began in 2000 and ended on the date of transfer. However, the inflation index used was based on national data and did not specifically take into account the disproportionately large increases in utility costs in California.

    – The CFP was also adjusted by inflation up until the date of transfer. There is no post-transfer adjustment to the CFP.

  4. fallbrookflats

    O.K. I’m asking around. Just what did Vickery have to to all the swells?

    • In general he said: “AOC did nothing wrong.” The attack by the press ( and some judges) is totally unfair and unwarranted. The AOC will continue on its present course. Then, after his long diatribe, he left the room and left Ron O to “monitor” the meeting further. check with others there for their take.

      PS Oh and he said nothing about the whistler blower who dislosed the $80 k JC meeting. My goodness does he have a great lawsuit. But the purpose was to keep the other AOC employees in line. Enployess are now feeling under siege. My my BV is a great manager. LOL

      • Interested Observer

        Was the Chief Justice in Attendance? Did he acknowledge there are issues which need to be addressed, or communication which needs to be done better by the AOC? Did any of the Judges in attendance ask questions about these issues or just sit there and listen to the excuses? It amazes me that the Presiding Judges seem to treat the administrative leaders of the AOC as their employers. For elected officials to be lectured by the head of an administrative agency is simply wrong. If they fail to question such, then they and their courts get what they deserve.

  5. Atticus Finch

    Someone should ask the AOC about the nearly $2,000,000 they spend each year on the council’s multiple “advisory groups,” (what is it now–close to 30?) many of which can’t be bothered to attach cost estimates to the recommendations they send to the council.

  6. PacWest50 – your comment regarding the king needing a kingdom is precisely accurate. I’ve never witnessed such adept and focused fiefdom building as that displayed by the AOC with Bill Vikery at the helm. Their empire building is almost impressive except for the fact that it is often done at the expense of good public policy and without regard to the fact that all of this bureacracy building is done with the public’s money and under some guise that it’s actually good for the public. The public despises bloated bureacracies and in the case of the judiciary, what the average tax payer cares about is whether they will get their day in court in a timely way or whether they will have to wait in the clerks line for half a day or not.

  7. Inglorious Basterds

    pacwest 50 – you’re the man/woman! Your comments are right on point. Keep up the heat!

  8. I’m an employee of the AOC employed through the ramp-up over the last 10 years and I have to state that many observations here, although somewhat accurate, many miss the mark or are misleading and here’s why.

    1) Some AOC employees like myself were previously well established, highly paid engineering, architectural and technical consultants IN OTHER JOBS WORKING FOR OTHER COMPANIES that took pay cuts as high as 50% to go to work for the AOC and provide a public service because we wanted to be on the ground floor of an exciting opportunity; Reshaping the judicial branch of California and being to go home with pride in our minds and in our hearts saying “I did that”.

    Hiring these people saved the state money, however a growing AOC is not without its critics as exhibited here.

    Many of those 100K wage earners earned twice as much elsewhere before going to work for the AOC and many can make twice as much elsewhere by leaving the AOC.

    Now its said that one can more easily justify contracting out at all levels of government over hiring an employee because its the added employees and not the consultants and contractors that come under scrutiny. This site is proof-positive of that.

    2) The CFP’s do not cover the costs as the true costs were hidden by years of deferred maintenence. County entities were charging the courts for services rendered – and trying to balance their own budgets with these fees while providing a minimal level of repairs and upkeep and continuing to defer maintenence – for as long as 15 years. Getting that lightbulb replaced by some counties was indeed a challenge. They would replace the bulb but our local courthouse would have to buy the bulb and pay for its replacement and there were 58 different and ever-evolving ways throughout the state to accomplish simple things like changing a light bulb imposed on by the courts and ultimately, the State of California from the counties. The situation became more and more untentable as tax revenues dropped and counties suffered the most.

    Today, the Office of Court Construction and Management attempts to manage a maintenence backlog somewhere around 350 million with a budget thats about 1/10th of that amount. Do the math, project the implications.

    Some courthouses will fare better than others because they are newer. Other courthouses need to simply be replaced with some being built at the turn of the century. Amador County’s holding cell before they moved was a coat closet with bars instead of a door. Mammoth Lakes and Santa Clara courts are courts that rented space sitting in old storefronts. Susanville is a turn-of-the-century courthouse where prisoners must walk through public areas in a building that cannot be expanded nor can it continue to be utilized because they don’t meet various code requirements. Replacing the turn of the century structure was deemed more cost effective than remodeling it. Markleeville courthouse cannot handle so much as a room fan without blowing all the circuits in the building and so on and so on and so on.

    3) Not taking the buildings ‘as is’ would result in years of costly state/county sniping for money or worse – litigation with one government entity suing another – surely not a good way to spend your tax dollars.

    Some entity needed to come up with the money as the counties surely weren’t building lots of new courthouses to meet the demand. County tax dollars, state tax dollars – they are still tax dollars and surcharges charged to fund the projects where they were not previously funded at all.

    Remember, the voters passed the initiative in 1998. They never spelled out how it would be funded and it took years to get that funding to execute the will of the voters.

    4) New courthouses are needed because some 21% of the courthouses are deemed unsafe to the public, having serious security issues or an inability with being able to comply with various codes, access to justice via accomodations or simply because there was no available courtrooms.

    In the inland empire area, defendants who waived time were stuck in local jails for a really really long time (I’ve heard citations as long as two years) waiting for justice – because there were no available judges or courtrooms in a community that had experienced explosive growth, yet didn’t add a single court building.

    5) Some major buildings inherited by the state had suffered so much deferred maintenence on buildings that were built in the late 50’s and early 60’s -and had a design life of 50 years that its cheaper to tear them down and rebuild than it is to wait for the next ‘big one’ when some may simply collapse. Long Beach Courthouse is a perfect example. Do you think any county is going to come up with the 300 million to replace massive courthouses like Long Beach or to add massive courthouses like San Bernardino or Fresno? When you fail to preserve defendants rights to a speedy trial and speedy arraignments because they do not waive time, then you must release them and dismiss the charges. This was already happening for a large swath of low-level crimes in strained areas and its getting worse as county prosecutors statewide continue to decline prosecution for minor offenses or public defenders can’t take additional cases due to a lack of resources.

    Add the inavailability of courts to the mix and you have a recipe for virtual anarchy; something I think a few tax dollars is well worth investing against.

    Please keep in mind: The 400 or so employees hired by the AOC in the last 5 or so years are expected to provide the same services as 4,000 county level employees that previously provided a wide variety of services to the courts. Since 1998, the counties have judicial branch employees work in buildings that were quite literally falling apart.

    The two service providers that do all of that maintenence are for the most part an insignificant force multiplier due to the tiny pot of money alloted to maintain these structures, the AOC themselves has to make some really hard choices and these choices were not easy.

    Access to justice is paramount simply because its a constitutional requirement. Utilizing what little money there is, OCCM is just trying to tread water and not lose any more buildings by deferring years of deferred maintenence even further and prioritizing the needs of some 500+ structures they inherited, eclipsing even DGS in the amount of owned real estate

    The State Department of General Services (DGS) rents around 17,000 buildings and offices and only owns and operates 60 of those buildings. The AOC has over 500 owned buildings that transferred with a huge percentage of those transferring last year.

    Some AOC people are seasoned veterans from DGS and many others are well seasoned private industry real estate, architectural, technology or engineering specialists who can easily set aside -at times- paralyzing state politics in Sacramento and still get the job done.

    Courthouse construction is incredibly unique architecture found in no other buiding, with three distinct pathways for the public, the incarcerated, and the employees all in an effort to keep everyone safe and separated from each other.

    Criticisms of CCMS are also not on the mark when you consider the alternative thats currently being used in some courts for Case Management.

    Even technologically inept Missouri has one statewide case mangement system called case.net where anyone can look up any case on the internet.

    California is the home of the personal computer and technological innovation and yet has no such case management system – but its in the process of developing one.

    In one case, this case management system will replace “foxpro running on DOS” in one trial court and about 2 dozen other differing packaged and home-brewed case management systems statewide.

    We are one of the few states that lacks a statewide case management system. Our well vetted laws that in lots of cases are pioneering do not permit us to download freeware or purchase a commercial off the shelf product as a suitable alternative to a fully integrated, statewide case management system.

    And lastly: The dedicated employees of the AOC took VOLUNTARY furloughs and pay cuts long before they were ever made mandatory and the savings by doing so more than offset all layoffs statewide.

    The judicial branch cannot afford the loss of a single human resource be they at the trial court level OR the AOC.

    I believe that I speak for everyone that took those voluntary furloughs as I did myself, took the pay cut and worked furlough days anyways so that our associates throughout the entire judicial branch would not suffer with layoffs and the job would get done anyways….because it seemed like the right thing to do.

    Now, in various courts around the state, unions are fighting furloughs. They did that in Rhode Island too.

    And when push came to shove, the judge told the Rhode Island Governor, “sorry, the unions are correct, you cannot implement a furlough. Instead you have to implement a layoff” which….if you really think about it, is the only viable alternative to a furlough.

    Our hearts truly go out to our associates in the trial courts who were laid off but you need to understand that the California court system was never top-down management.

    There is no “King George” and while Chief Justice George may indeed be the presiding justice of the California Supreme Court, he has little or nothing to do with the trial courts other than being a fierce advocate for access to justice and equitable funding to provide that access that we as a public demand.

    Rather,the AOC is one newly transformed entity entrusted to trying assist in the management of 58 distinctly different kingdoms with a budget thats a fraction of what it should be and about 1/10th the amount of employees that the counties required to do the same job.

    EXEMPT EMPLOYEES who put in 60+ hour weeks are the norm at the AOC – not the exception.

    I would invite any person anywhere to shadow me for a week while I do my job. I am the only person doing it anywhere in the Judicial Branch and I should be a part of a team of 10 people supporting my particular job statewide.

    That part has been well established.

    Instead of having those kinds of resources, I like many other people in the AOC are in awe of the tremendous responsibility we have to serve the 37.5 million people of the State of California with about 1/10th of the workforce the counties employed to do the same job.

    Up until recently, the AOC had a program where we would go out for a week and walk a mile in the shoes of our associates in the Trial Courts. This program was suspended because our own resources were stretched too thin.

    However, I’m willing to bet if you ask Bill Vickery or Ron Overholt if you can shadow any one of our staff for a week and see the dozens of projects each one juggles while often burning the midnight or weekend oil to get it done. Most of these people like myself are are exempt employees or working managers. I think rather than being a critic, you would spin around and be an advocate and wonder like we do at times, how we manage to accomplish so much with so little.

    We know. Our families know when they don’t see us for days on end or we bring our work home.

    The people of the AOC are proud of the work that we do for the people of the State of California as well as our valued associates and peers in the trial courts.

    Being afraid of that which one does not know completely is human nature and we probably don’t do the best at public information and outreach as we should to belay these criticisms.

    Fair enough but it isn’t because we don’t try. We simply lack the resources to disseminate this public information in a manner that would offset the criticisms from people and sites like this one.

    Walk a mile in our shoes. Your whole perspective will unquestionably change.