Stockton Wonders If New Courthouse Will Ever Be Built

StocktonCourthouseIn a time when court closures, budget cuts, furloughs, and layoffs are the dominant topics of discussion in California’s judicial system,  it’s rather surprising that there are some people who are discussing building a new courthouse.  A new courthouse?  Who’s getting a new courthouse and where is it being built?  Well, that would be the new courthouse that’s planned for the downtown area of Stockton in San Joaquin County.

The Central Valley Business Times wrote in a piece today that the Hon. Judge William Murray, presiding judge of the Stockton court, is concerned that Stockton may not get to see a new courthouse because the funds that had been allocated for its construction might be taken away by lawmakers to plug other holes in the state budget.  Hmm…a larger government agency taking funds away to build other projects needed or otherwise.  Sounds so familiar.

Anyway, the article goes on to state that county and city officials were THRILLED when they realized that Stockton had won the “Extreme Makeover Courthouse Edition” when the AOC announced last month that Stockton was slated to get a new courthouse.  But there’s a catch.  Isn’t there always?  Just because the AOC said they’d build a courthouse doesn’t necessarily make it so.

Even though more than $250 million has been set aside for the purchase of surrounding property and construction of a new downtown courthouse, presiding Judge William Murray said he’s concerned that when it comes time to build the courthouse, the money won’t be there.

The $250 million is not part of the state budget and instead is part of a larger amount that comes from fees and fines assessed by courts throughout California, Mr. Murray said.

The reason for his concern: the California state budget mess and the propensity of California lawmakers to raid other sources of revenue to help fix the budget problem.

What was that?  The AOC has allocated $250 million for building this new courthouse??  I’m not begrudging Stockton’s need for a courthouse.  Don’t get me wrong.  But really?  The AOC wants to build that courthouse now?  I’m not even going to get into where else I think that $250 million could be better spent right now.  God forbid I should look like a tired old drummer beating the same old tune.

The article also goes on to discuss some of the problems they’re having logistically with building the courthouse.  For instance, while the AOC may allegedly have the funds for the courthouse, the county doesn’t have the funds for the parking lot.

But the issue was important enough for the Board of Supervisors to vote earlier this year its intentions to build a two-level underground garage with an open plaza above ground where the present-day courthouse now stands.

Just how the county will pay for construction of the garage and above-ground plaza is still unknown, according to county officials.

“We don’t have the money to build it,” said County Administrator Manuel Lopez. “I don’t know how we’re going to build it.”

Although the county does have more than $2 million in capital improvement fees, it’s not enough to cover the estimated $30 million construction price tag.

To paraphrase a line from the film “Field of Dreams.” If you build it, they will come…but then were are they going to park?

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2 responses to “Stockton Wonders If New Courthouse Will Ever Be Built

  1. William J. Murray, Jr.

    I feel the need to clarify some of the AOC Watcher’s comments. I invite the AOC Watcher to publish the entirety of what I write below, and not just excerpts.

    It seems that the AOC Watcher believes the funding for the Stockton courthouse project somehow recently materialized and that the AOC has the discretion to use these funds to address the other financial challenges faced by the branch. The funding for the Stockton project comes from SB1732, the Courthouse Facilities Act of 2002. That legislation created the State Court Facilities Construction Fund which consists of fees and fines authorized specifically for the purpose of constructing and renovating courthouses. I think there are another 12 projects around the state that are being funded from this fund. The Legislature’s authorization for our project and seven of the others came in 2007.

    Our funding should not be confused with SB 1407 which went into effect earlier this year. SB 1407 was passed by the Legislature to support lease revenue bonds for 41 other courthouse projects. The money in the SB1732 fund has been accumulating since 2002 for the purpose of building courthouses. Some of the state’s most immediately needed courthouse projects will be funded out of this fund. But unlike SB 1407, the SB 1732 funds were not intended to support lease revenue bonds. The construction of the SB 1732 projects will be funded from the fund. If that fund is depleted, our project and the others will be delayed until the collection of fees and fines build the fund up again. When the Legislature passed the first FY09-10 budget in March of this year, they actually did take $40M from the SB 1732 fund. When they passed the budget fix this summer, the Legislature took another $25M from the fledgling SB1407 fund.

    It was not the AOC that decided whether our project should be authorized. The members of the California Judicial Council made a decision based on objective criteria to ask the Legislature for authorization. The criteria upon which the Judicial Council relied were set forth in the Judicial Branch Capital Outlay Plan and staff reports which have been available for anyone to review on the Judicial Council’s website.

    And it was not the AOC that allocated the funding for our new courthouse. It was the Legislature. The AOC does not have the authority to allocate funding out of the SB1732 fund.

    The reasons why our county needs a new courthouse are well documented, and I won’t take up space here to outline them. Suffice it to say that the stabbing attack our judicial colleague experienced earlier this year while presiding over a murder trial was, in part, the result of deficient security related features in this building.

    You pose the following question about our project, “A new courthouse? Really?” The questions that should be asked are why our court and the public it serves has had to put up with our facility so long and what terrible event is going to happen next in our current courthouse before the new facility is ready in 2013? Really?

    The AOC Watcher misses several points. Our building is unsafe, and it is too small. If we put off building the new courthouse while the economy is in this economic downturn to use the funding for one-time budget fixes, it will cost the state much more money in the future when construction costs escalate. And we cannot wait. We should not have to live in this building another day longer than necessary. It is only a matter of time before something else catastrophic happens here. Really? I made similar statements to legislators when lobbying for the funding authorization the SB1732 projects received in 2007. Two years later our colleague was stabbed while sitting on the bench presiding over a trial in our unsafe facility.

    It should be noted here that the news article from which the AOC Watcher got information was published by a little known, second tier paper in a city of 80,000 people. The reporting was inaccurate. For example, our project was not announced last month. It was announced in 2007 along with seven other projects around the state. Planning for our project has been taking place over the last two years. Last month the CEQA on the project was completed, and the City of Stockton then formally donated the land on which the facility will be constructed. Also, although I expressed concern to the reporter about the funding for our courthouse, I never said I wondered whether it would ever get built. In fact, I believe it will be built sooner or later.

    Also, the reporter apparently did not want to accept the distinction between the county’s project and ours. The county’s plans for a plaza/parking garage are totally separate from our courthouse project, and this was explained repeatedly to the reporter. Moreover, it is not a surprise that the county does not have money for their project. They said that when they announced their plans back in January of this year. What the reporter did not mention is that the county cannot start their project until 2013 when we move into the new facility because the current courthouse sits on the site of the future plaza/parking garage. And the reporter did not mention that the CAO for the county is cautiously optimistic that funding for their project will be available when the economy comes back. In fact, the City of Stockton and the county both want that project to go forward. Considerable redevelopment efforts took place in downtown Stockton leading up to the recession, and the plaza/parking garage will likely be the first project to go forward when the economy starts to rebound.

    I don’t know where the AOC Watcher got the idea that lack of parking is a “problem” or a “logistical issue” for our project. The current parking in downtown Stockton is adequate according to the EIR, and a little research on this issue would have revealed that to the AOC Watcher.

    There is no doubt that California’s economy is in serious trouble. Few know this better than those of us who live in San Joaquin County, one of the hardest hit areas in the state. Moreover, our court is one of the most under resourced courts in the state. Using the Judicial Council’s objective criteria we were 29% under resourced prior to this year’s budget reductions. The reductions we have taken this year will hurt us much more than the reductions experienced in other courts, many of which have reserve funds which will get them through this fiscal year without furloughing their employees. Our employees gave up their previously negotiated 3% COLA this fiscal year and agreed to furlough 12 days because they understand the reductions our court was required to take would have resulted in massive layoffs and devastate the administration of justice in our community. Yet, they also know how critical it is to build the new courthouse. If our funding is depleted, it will take years to replenish. Indeed, it took five years in good economic times to build the fund to the point the Legislature felt comfortable in authorizing our project and others. Moreover, those who live in our community are looking forward to the economic stimulus our project will provide to our local economy.

    I think informed debate about judicial branch policy is healthy and should be encouraged. However, those who enter into the debate would do well to read all the available background materials. Many materials are available on the Judicial Council website, http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov. It is clear from this blog that the AOC Watcher did no background research whatsoever for the piece about our courthouse. Instead, reliance was placed on an inaccurate article in an obscure local newspaper. In this situation, it may have been helpful for the AOC Watcher to contact me for additional background material. I am always accessible.

    Lastly, for those who live in communities with functional and safe courthouses, please understand that not every California community is as lucky as you. We can’t continue to live in our current courthouse here. I’m sure you don’t want another judge attacked or some similar event to occur.

    Thank you in advance for publishing this response.

    William J. Murray, Jr.
    Presiding Judge
    Superior Court, San Joaquin County

  2. Thank you for setting the record straight as you see it, Judge Murray. In fact, an AOC Watcher reader took me to task in an email for commenting about your courthouse reminding me that there had been two serious security incidents within the past couple of years.

    I invited the reader to post their opposing viewpoint and I instead got yours, of which I am most appreciative.

    Sometimes courthouses are indeed needed. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.