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.”
“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