Councilmember Sue Greenwald responds on Courthouse Construction Issue

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yolo_county_courthouseDavis City Councilmember Sue Greenwald finds herself in the middle of an unusual debate, in the sense that the Yolo County Courthouse on the surface does not directly involve her elected position with the City of Davis.

Nevertheless, in Thursday’s Davis Enterprise, the councilmember argued, “My concern is not merely with the $173 million cost of the replacement courthouse. It is with the entire $5 billion cost of the statewide courthouse construction bonds, which are currently under the radar screen.”

She continued, “Although we are facing extraordinarily difficult fiscal challenges in state and local government, the Legislature has passed a bill authorizing $5 billion worth of bonds for courthouse construction. These bonds have been authorized but not yet issued.”

“They are to be paid for by fees and fines, including revenue from a $4.50 surcharge on parking tickets and more than half of the revenue from traffic tickets,” the Councilmember writes.  “Should we be building grand new replacement courthouses in this time of fiscal hardship, or should the money be put to other uses? These are legitimate questions.”

She was responding to a lengthy editorial by Judge Dave Rosenberg defending the project.

It all started over a month ago with an article on the Vanguard in which we reported on Public Defender Tracie Olson’s comments to the Yolo County Board of Supervisors in which she told the Board that there were a large number of jury trials in the last few years and that number was not reflective of a rise in crime. 

“It is my opinion that the number of jury trials has nothing to do with the crime rate,” Ms. Olson told the board, before explaining a number of issues that her department has had trying to settle cases prior to the trial stage.

Councilmember Sue Greenwald made a comment and asked, “Would someone be willing to research the number of trials per capita in Yolo County versus the average in California? “

She then pointed out, “The county is planning on replacing its elegant historic courthouse with a new $175 million courthouse. This is astounding to me. It would be astounding even if there were not plenty of room in the parking lot behind the building to build a modest annex – which there is. “

“The money is supposed to come from the State. The State plans to take away city RDA funds next year and give them to the courts,” she said.

“If you divided up that $175 million equally in Yolo County, Davis’ share would be about $45 million,” she added before putting it into context,  “That would be enough to pay off our retiree health unfunded liability.”

Davis Enterprise columnist Rich Rifkin would pick up this issue, arguing that the amount of money that is being budgeted for a new facility could be better spent elsewhere.

He argued that the money has not been spent and could therefore be reallocated into the general fund.  “$5 billion is a lot of money — especially when our state is in such dire straits. Any savings generated by defunding SB 1407 would help,” he writes.

The funding mechanism is problematic, coming from traffic fines but also criminal defendants.

He wrote, “SB 1407 increases the ‘court security fee’ on every criminal conviction — including traffic offenses — by $20 to $60. It also adds $2 to every parking violation statewide and ups the cost of going to traffic school by $40.”

“The money generated from these new fees will not go into the general fund. Instead, it will be deposited in the Immediate and Critical Needs Account (ICNA) of the State Court Facilities Construction Fund,” he continues.

He argued that this is a luxury and that SB 1407 could be temporarily changed.

“Yet in reality, there is no reason SB 1407 could not be temporarily changed,” he argued. “Until we are out of the economic crisis, the legislature could redirect those new court security fees to the general fund. Once our economy picks up, that new money could then be put in the ICNA, where it would finance courthouse projects as needed.”

Judge Rosenberg took it upon himself to respond.

In his over 1200-word response, the Judge wrote, “His column is so full of misstatements and misconceptions that I felt compelled to respond.”

The Judge argued that “This project is not straining any budget — state, county or local. Not one penny of taxpayer money is used for the courthouse project. No state general fund money is used for the project. The project is completely funded by a statewide surcharge assessed against everyone convicted of a violation of the criminal law.”

Mr. Rifkin’s idea was for the legislature to allow that money to be used for the general fund and current cuts to the budget.

Judge Rosenberg argued to do so “would violate state law, which requires that the money collected from people who violate the law should be used for court facilities.”  He further argued that “to do so would ignore the Constitution, which would mandate some sort of nexus between the fee and the expenditure — using the funds from those convicted of crime to pay off a county’s debt has no nexus; using the funds to pay for court facilities certainly does.”

Ironically enough, the Judge then rejoined that the money actually is being used for the things he says it cannot be used for.  He wrote, “Rifkin fails to mention that the state Legislature last year borrowed a substantial portion of this fund for ‘other purposes’ and is poised to divert a substantial amount of this fund again this year.”

He adds, “Clearly, the Legislature — which thrashes around for available pots of money in difficult times — has, in fact, diverted courthouse construction funds for ‘other purposes’ already.”

Sue Greenwald this week questioned the priority of building a new courthouse. 

“We are facing a shrinking pie while experiencing a general shift of funds toward the prison/court system and away from our state universities,” she writes.  “Our cities, schools and social services are underfunded, both in terms of operations and in terms of capital construction and replacement costs. We don’t even have the money to replace disintegrating low-budget chip seal recently used on our neighborhood streets.”

She continues, “The existing Yolo County Courthouse is a magnificent old building in downtown Woodland. It is slated to be vacated and replaced with a massive and very expensive five-story building, which, according to a county spokesperson, is “built for the future” — presumably a future of even more explosive growth of our court/prison system. The title of the empty old courthouse will be handed over to the county.”

Sue Greenwald makes a critical point, “One of the reasons for the somewhat crowded conditions in the courthouse is the recent explosion in the number of trials for which Yolo County has come under increasing criticism.”

She adds, “Polls show that Californians believe we should be scaling back the growth of and expenditures for the court/prison system. This is a far cry from the current plans for large-scale court construction spending in expectation of future growth in the number of court cases.”

She acknowledges structural and logistical problems, but argues, “Many of these sub-optimal conditions could be remediated for far less than $175 million.”

Moreover she adds, “Others are similar to conditions that we all live with — certainly, our city buildings are cramped, modest and scattered all over town. Our community development staff is jammed into a temporary trailer attached to the west end of City Hall.”

“We would be happy to have a few million dollars to build a permanent annex to replace the temporary trailers. But we don’t need to spend more than $100 million to tear down City Hall and build a luxurious new building in order to consolidate our operations,” she continues.

—David M. Greeenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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9 thoughts on “Councilmember Sue Greenwald responds on Courthouse Construction Issue”

  1. E Roberts Musser

    The building of a huge expensive courthouse is just one more example of generally how out of touch our gov’t officials are w reality. The economy is still in the doldrums, basic services are not being funded, people (including court personnel, sheriff’s deputies, etc.) are getting laid off w nowhere to obtain work, yet the gov’t keeps on building luxury facilities as if there were no recession. I think the average citizen would probably consider the new courthouse as a waste of taxpayer funds if it was ever put to a vote…

  2. Rifkin

    [i]”They are to be paid for by fees and fines, including [b]revenue from a $4.50 surcharge on parking tickets[/b] and more than half of the revenue from traffic tickets,” the Councilmember writes.[/i]

    For the record, before this bill was adopted, there was a $1.50 surcharge on most parking tickets in California. That surcharge is now $4.50, with the additional $3 going to the courthouse construction fund for 41 courthouse projects, including the one in Woodland.

    I was told that the original state surcharge of $1.50 came about when cities and other agencies began using the DMV to help collect on parking fines. Say you got a parking ticket in Fresno for $45. The City of Fresno would then use the DMV to bill the owner of the car $46.50. If you failed to pay your ticket, you could not register your car.

    [i](Rifkin) wrote, “SB 1407 increases the ‘court security fee’ on every criminal conviction — including traffic offenses — by $20 to $60. It also adds $2 to every parking violation statewide and ups the cost of going to traffic school by $40.”[/i]

    The numbers I used in my column (as David quotes here) were from the LAO analysis of the bill. What I failed to realize is that Don Perata, who authored the bill, changed them after the LAO analysis. So the $2 for parking tickets became $3. The surcharge on traffic tickets finalized at $35. The surcharge on criminal convictions became $30 (per offense, I believe). The surcharge on traffic school increased by $25. (The new surcharge is now $49.)

  3. Sue Greenwald

    David Greenwald: I think I explained quite clearly how the $5 billion state program affects the city. The whole point of my article is that the state revenues are fungible.

  4. Rifkin

    One thing I need to add on this: I have not argued (ever) that we have no need for better, bigger and more modern courthouse facilities. My complaint is one of timing and priorities.

    The state has a severe fiscal crisis. Even with some $11 billion in cuts (part of which was not cuts, but was actually moving money into the general fund from other funds), we are still roughly $15 billion in the red. As such, it seems to me unwise to push ahead with a $5 billion courthouse construction program which, while perhaps needed, could be put off until the state’s fiscal crisis has subsided.

    The traffic and parking and other surcharges will continue to be collected. There is plenty of precedent to suggest that for a few years we could spend that money in other ways which are more pressing right now. It’s ultimately a question of priorities.

    Something else is also worth questioning about the $172.9 million slated for the Rosenberg Courthouse, as well as with all of the other 40 courthouse projects (including a $519 million edifice in Sacramento): Are these buildings being built as frugally as possible? In other words, do the furnishings and so on include the most expensive floorings and doors and woodworking and so on? Is the idea to build a utilitarian courthouse? Or one in which everyone who enters says, “Jesus, this is really over the top?” I suspect it will be the latter.

    It’s unfair–but I will do it anyhow–to complain that all of the labor on the courthouse will be paid wages and benefits more than double what a true low-bid will be. That’s because the Democractic Party has passed laws essentially requiring that all public construction projects are union jobs and not true low bids and therefore a ripoff to the taxpayers.

    Think about it this way: If you bought a piece of land in Davis and wanted a house built on it, what are the chances you would hire the most expensive union laborers, masons, electricians, painters, carpenters, tile setters, landscapers and so on to do your construction? Unless you have unlimited money–that is, taxpayer money–chances are you will hire workers who are able to do a quality job at the lowest price possible. If you behave like the state, you would end up paying as much for a 900 square foot house as your neighbor paid for his 2,900 square foot house.

    No doubt our system is a great deal for the workers and contractors who get these $172.9 million projects. But if we really cared about saving money, I bet the Rosenberg Courthouse could be built for $50 million less at the same standard of construction.

    You might think, fine, I like that trade-off. You want tradesmen to live a comfortable life. But in reality, these sorts of rip-offs to taxpayers mean that we have more niggardly healthcare, housing and food programs for the poor.

  5. Sue Greenwald

    Maybe that last statement came across is too harsh. I was just concerned that the lead-in sentence implies that the issue is not of concern to the city of Davis, and it is. The remainder of the article fairly assesses the discussion.

    For the record, I had independently researched the entire $5 billion statewide program.

  6. Dr. Wu

    [quote]If you bought a piece of land in Davis and wanted a house built on it, what are the chances you would hire the most expensive union laborers, masons, electricians, painters, carpenters, tile setters, landscapers and so on to do your construction? [/quote]

    I can answer that for myself: zero probability.

    This is a boondoggle and thanks Sue for once again letting everyone know.

  7. medwoman

    I am in agreement with everyone who has expressed concerns about the timing of a major financial outlay on court houses at a time when other public services are being financially decimated. I think this again speaks to our current societal priorities. We seem willing as a society to fund aspects of our judicial and penal systems while neglecting social services, health, and education. I would favor a comprehensive review, at all levels of our government of our values and as Elaine has frequently said, an end to our current “silo” mentality.

  8. David M. Greenwald

    As I understand the courthouse is scheduled to open in 2015 and I don’t know who has the authority at this point to stop it.

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