California courthouse expansion project is a costly boondoggle

Though Jerry Brown vowed to balance the state budget without gimmicks as he sought last year to return to the governorship, he ultimately relied on rosy revenue estimates, some creative bookkeeping and raids on other funds to temporarily cover the deficit.

There may be, however, one positive aspect to this dreary story.

One of the minor gimmicks is a suspension of the multibillion-dollar courthouse construction program being managed, or mismanaged, by the Administrative Office of the Courts, headed by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.

The suspension gives Brown and the Legislature an opportunity to fix a construction program’s skyrocketing costs.

Overall, the AOC is planning to spend $5.6 billion on new courtrooms, with virtually all the money coming from bonds to be repaid by increases in criminal fines and civil filing fees.

As Courthouse News Service has exposed in excruciating detail, the 41 projects are projected to cost hundreds of dollars a square foot — many well over $1,000. That’s at least three or four times as much as courthouses cost in other states, even in high-cost New York.

Court officials defend the high costs by citing unique courthouse security needs, California’s generally higher construction costs and the “prevailing wage” law that governs public works pay.

But even assuming those factors, Courthouse News quotes authorities on courthouse construction as being incredulous at the money projected to be spent in California.

“It strikes me as being absurd,” Dean Dalvit, a Colorado architect and engineer, said in a Courthouse News article. “The courthouse here in Jefferson County, which is referred to by the locals as the Taj Mahal — even that building did not exceed $200 per square foot.”

The governor and legislators may be reluctant to intercede with another governmental branch, but this issue doesn’t involve judicial policy. It’s construction management, which the AOC is evidently ill-equipped to do.

Brown, et al., are already suspending the construction program and redirecting the revenue stream.

Thereby, they are indirectly assisting the Alliance of California Judges, a breakaway group that has accused the AOC of being a bloated, incompetent bureaucracy, citing courthouse construction costs and an expensive computer system.

There’s no reason why the AOC should be exempt from the public works design and bidding laws that govern other state agencies. Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, R-Camarillo, introduced legislation to that effect this year, and it should be passed.

Brown and the Legislature should ensure that the public gets good value, not a gold-plated boondoggle.

 

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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