In a major blow to trial courts up and down the state, California's judiciary has frozen 23 pending courthouse construction projects.
The delay comes as nearly $600 million may shift away from the projects to cover the leasing costs for the new, privately built Long Beach courthouse downtown.
Due to the unexpected expense, funding for the 23 pending projects will be dramatically reduced, according to Teresa Ruano, a spokeswoman with the Administrative Office of the Courts. Each of the 23 projects will be re-evaluated on Dec. 13 by a committee, and up to 15 may be cut, Ruano said.
"The (judicial) branch has a responsibility to move forward with only the projects that we can afford," Appellate Court Justice Brad Hill wrote Monday in an email to his fellow court officials obtained by the Press-Telegram this week.
Hill heads the facilities group overseeing courthouse construction.
"Ultimately, the Judicial Council will need to decide which projects must be indefinitely delayed to accommodate funding the new courthouse in Long Beach out of SB 1407 funds," Hill said.
Senate Bill 1407, signed into law in 2008, designated judicial branch revenues to finance up to $5 billion in courthouse construction bonds. New court fees, penalties and assessments were supposed to be used to pay off those bonds.
But nearly $1.5 billion from those courthouse construction fees have been borrowed, transferred to the state's general fund or redirected to court operations.
The state's general fund was expected to cover the Long Beach courthouse leasing costs, but now SB 1407 funds may get stuck with that expense, too.
Rather than the state building a courthouse, the $490 million Long Beach construction project is being paid for by a private group of architects, builders, financiers and facility managers. Once it is completed next fall, the state will lease it at a cost of about $50 million per year.
"We have been working for months advocating that this project be paid for by the general fund and not transferred to the 1407 program," Hill wrote.
But this week he determined that wasn't going to happen.
He said the state's Court Facilities Working Group will meet Dec. 13 in San Francisco to decide which of California's other courthouse construction projects must get slashed.
Three of those projects are in Los Angeles County, including Eastlake Juvenile Courthouse, Los Angeles Mental Health Courthouse and Southeast Los Angeles Courthouse.
This news follows the shelving of seven courthouse projects, including Glendale Courthouse and Santa Clarita Courthouse, on Oct. 26. The 23 remaining projects were given the green light, at that time, and are currently in various stages of planning, from site acquisition to design.
The most costly of the projects that could be shelved is a new $620 million 71-courtroom facility in downtown San Diego.
State and local officials have lauded the concept of a public-private partnership as an innovative, cost-effective way to build the new Gov. George Deukmejian Courthouse at Magnolia Avenue and Broadway in Long Beach, but the concept may not have been the best approach, according to a recent study.
The Legislative Analyst's Office, which generated the report in November, concluded that the state Administrative Office of the Courts did not use clear processes and appeared "to have selected projects not well suited for" a public-private partnership.
The report also stated that studies comparing the costs of projects under different options "were based on several assumptions that are subject to significant uncertainty and interpretation, and tended to favor" public-private partnerships.
In Long Beach's case, the state's Administrative Office of the Courts entered into a 35-year pact with the Long Beach Judicial Partners team to build and maintain the courthouse.
Once the project is complete in 2013, the state will start making payments based on the success of the building's operation and maintenance. The state owns the land and the building throughout the contract's 35-year term and will continue to retain title at the end of the contract.
The project replaces the more than 50-year-old downtown courthouse at 415 W. Ocean Blvd., considered by the state to be one of the worst courthouses in California in terms of security, overcrowding and physical condition.
When completed, the low-rise, L-shaped building designed by AECOM will house 31 civil and criminal courtrooms. The court building will occupy roughly 80 percent of the overall space, which totals 531,000 square feet.
Also, the parking structure across Broadway from the new building is being renovated and expanded to more than 1,000 spaces.
Staff Writer Karen Robes Meeks contributed to this report.