It’s no secret that construction workers in California
have borne the brunt of the Great Recession. Our state’s 12.4 percent unemployment rate remains one of the highest
in the country. In the last two years some 300,000 construction workers have been thrown out of work.
The construction industry here is facing an alarming
30 percent unemployment rate. These men and women need
work. And they need it now.
The economic outlook is bleak, but there is some hope.
Two years ago the legislature passed and the governor
signed a critical piece of legislation to begin repairing
and replacing the most dilapidated and dangerous courthouses
in the state without using a single dollar of the state’s general fund. SB 1407 provides the revenue from increased fines and fees
to support $5 billion in bonds to construct or renovate 41 courthouses in 34 counties, a mere portion of the most critically necessary
Aging and unsafe court facilities have suffered from
years of deferred maintenance. The safety of the people
who work in and use these facilities and the quality
of our judicial system lie in the balance. As Governor
Schwarzenegger said when he signed this bill, “Improving our state’s aging court facilities has been an integral part
of my promise to Californians to rebuild our infrastructure
and increase public safety. This bill not only delivers
on that promise to finance desperately needed construction
projects, but it will also help create thousands of
jobs for California workers.”
Nonetheless, there are shortsighted proposals to reduce
and delay courthouse construction projects by shifting
the revenue from court fees and fines to ongoing operational
expenses. Indeed, the presiding judge of the Superior
Court of Los Angeles has been urging this tack. In
seeking support from business groups and law firms,
the presiding judge fails to recognize the critical
infrastructure needs that exist throughout the rest
of the state. In many cases the courthouse is the only
courthouse in the county. Thankfully, 53 out of the 58 presiding superior court judges in the state openly
oppose LA’s position. In the interest of a functional judiciary
system, our infrastructure needs, and a stronger economy,
this idea should be rejected.
First, delays in implementation would prolong security
risks. In March 2009, a defendant in a Stockton courtroom was shot to death
after he attacked the judge with a handmade weapon.
No barrier separated the witness stand from the judge’s bench, illustrating the direct relationship of security
to courthouse design and construction. (A new Stockton courthouse is now in the design phase.) In many of the courthouses to be replaced, in-custody defendants move through the same hallways used
by the public, which can easily lead to intimidation
of victims, witnesses, and jurors. Inadequate security
is a major concern in courthouses that deal with gang-related criminal proceedings. Many courthouses are
seismically deficient as well. In fact, several have
seismic ratings indicating substantial level of risk
to life and safety due to a seismic event.
Implementation of SB 1407 presents an unparalleled opportunity for economic
stimulus at a time when the state’s economy is at historic lows. The Administrative Office
of the Courts estimates that the $5 billion in construction projects will create 105,000 jobs through direct employment and provide an indirect
boost to local economies. The negative impact of delay
would be felt throughout the construction industry
and related trades.
Lastly, delays would escalate costs. As bad as the
current recession is, it also brings a window of opportunity
for reduced pricing on land, design, and construction.
Assuming typical construction escalation costs, delaying
for one year would undermine the state’s buying power by an estimated $300 million. If construction is delayed, cautious private
sector participants will increase their bids to mitigate
the perceived increased risk of uncertainty in doing
business with the State of California. This risk assessment
could lead to unnecessary increased costs and reduced
What better time than now to move forward with important
state infrastructure when construction and site acquisition
costs are at a low mark and construction industry unemployment
is at a high mark?
“Our judicial system does not need, want, or expect
palaces,” Chief Justice Ronald George has said. “But it does deserve facilities that are secure, well
maintained, and adequate to serve the public’s needs.”