The Septuagenarian Speaks – Published December 16, 2020, Siskiyou Daily News
A headline in last week’s Siskiyou Daily News announced that Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue and the county supervisors decided to discontinue the new jail project because of its high cost. In the meantime, our new courthouse project is currently under construction and scheduled for completion in March. A question I keep hearing is: How can the county afford a new courthouse? That’s a great question, especially in today’s California environment where local governments are strapped to take care of their existing assets and provide the basic services they are supposed to provide. We do need a new jail, but the county thus far has not had sufficient resources to build one despite receiving a $27 million AB 900 grant a few years ago to fund it. Why is the new courthouse different?
The simple answer is that the new courthouse is not a county project. It is a state project. In California all court assets, including the real estate and courthouse buildings, are owned by the state. It has not always been this way. Originally the courts in California were owned and operated by the local government entities in which they were situated. The transition to the state was a gradual process that occurred over decades. When I was first elected to the Yreka Justice Court in 1989, my salary was paid by the county. I recall thirty-two years ago meeting with Mike Hanford, the Siskiyou County Administrator at the time, to negotiate an annual salary, which the county paid. Over the years since then, through a series of state enactments, the entire structure of California’s court system was changed. Justice Courts and Municipal Courts were eliminated, leaving in place only the Superior Courts (California’s trial courts), the Courts of Appeal, and the California Supreme Court. Over the years, ownership of all physical court facilities has been gradually transferred from local governments to the state. Every county has a Superior Court, with the actual number of judges in each county having evolved over the years based on population and workload, although no California county now has less than two. Even Alpine County, population around 1,175 people, has two judges. Siskiyou County has four judges, plus a commissioner appointed by the judges to assist in the workload.
Our existing “old” courthouse is still owned by the county. Its ownership would have been transferred to the state under the process described above, except that, due to security and other concerns, the momentum for constructing a new building for the courts created a different path. I’m told the current plan for the “old” courthouse, once the courts have vacated, is to continue to house county government agencies and departments, such as the Treasurer-Tax Collector, Assessor-Recorder, District Attorney, and Public Defender, which the building is still suited to do. Currently, the Board of Supervisors’ Chambers doubles as a courtroom when the Board is not in session. This will change, of course, when the courts move to the new building.
As early as 1991, recognizing that many of the court facilities in California were inadequate and unsafe, the state judicial council established minimum facilities standards for California’s trial courts. Safety and security for witnesses, jurors, litigants, and court personnel were important considerations.
Following up on that, in 2002 our court published its own Facilities Master Plan. This was the result of an extensive study to determine the best way to create courtroom facilities meeting the required standards and best serving the county’s citizens. By then Justice and Municipal Courts had been abolished, but the Superior Court, now with four judges, still occupied spaces in Dorris, Happy Camp, and Weed, in addition to the main court in Yreka. These spaces were leased by the county, were woefully inadequate for safe and secure courtroom use, and not cost effective. After considering various options, including renovating and reusing existing spaces, the study concluded that there was really only one acceptable solution: construct a new building in Yreka, which seemed like a pipe dream at the time because of the lack of funds to do that. As a result of state legislation in 1991, the county had accumulated a “Courthouse Construction Fund” of more than $4.5 million, derived from fines and fees collected by the courts. The courts generate substantial revenues through fines and fees, but under California law, this money is remitted to the state. The 1991 legislation provided for a portion of those funds to be given back to the county to form a fund for courthouse construction. The $4.5 million was nowhere enough to build a new courthouse, but, as I will describe later, was very significant in making our new courthouse project a reality.
Then, to the rescue, on September 26, 2008, along came Senate Bill 1407. This state legislation launched a statewide courthouse rebuilding program in California by designating judicial branch revenues (fines and fees collected by the courts) to fund up to $5 billion in lease-revenue bonds to finance new construction and renovation projects statewide. So, the state, having already determined that California’s courts should be state assets, allocated $5 billion to “improve our state’s aging court facilities.” The next question, then, was how should the money be allocated? Who should get the money? There are fifty-eight counties in California, and of course each thought their needs were of the highest importance. Adding to the problem for us, it’s difficult for small rural counties like ours to get the attention of the politicians in Sacramento. Los Angeles County, with its population of about 10.04 million people, has 481 judges, and obviously gets more attention. So do other large counties, like Santa Clara County, population about 1.9 million, with 77 judges. There are about 1,500 Superior Court judges in the state, assisted by 380 commissioners. How could our county compete with that? Quite admirably, as it turned out, thanks to the efforts of many Siskiyou County people working together with state representatives in a remarkably cooperative effort.
At the same time that the state was figuring out how to allocate the $5 billion, our county had already organized a multi-agency Project Advisory Group of motivated local people to let the state folks know that we were ahead of the curve. Initially, the state identified forty-one courts to receive funding, including ours. On December 1, 2008, our Project Advisory Group sent a letter to the state’s Office of Court Construction and Management, thanking them for including us in the forty-one, and announcing that representatives from our city, county, and court had already held meetings to review the project. This letter, signed by County Administrative Officer Brian McDermott, City Manager Brian Meek, and Superior Court Presiding Judge Laura Matsunaga, boldly proclaimed “We are prepared to move forward with building a new courthouse in Yreka, and pledge our ongoing cooperation in assisting the (state) in this endeavor.”
At that time, I had just retired from the bench, but still taking court assignments; and I was participating in those Project Advisory Group meetings. Others who I recall were actively involved were Judge William Davis, County Supervisors Grace Bennett and Michael Kobseff, City Council members James Griffin and Rory McNeil, Deputy Director of Planning Greg Plucker, and Assistant Court Executive Officer Renee’ McCanna Crane. Court Executive Officer Larry Gobelman was a particularly influential force. The importance of this cooperative effort was monumental.
We soon learned that having a realistic ability to acquire a site for a new courthouse was very important to the state in deciding which courts should be awarded funds. If a local court had its ducks lined up for site acquisition, it was placed on a higher priority level to receive the money. The state didn’t care so much where we put the new courthouse; it was more concerned about minimizing the expense and hassle of acquiring the real estate. Ideally, from the state’s standpoint, the property would be procured at the cheapest possible price, based on competitive bidding. As a practical matter, that meant an undeveloped parcel away from downtown. Our Project Advisory Group vigorously argued against that idea. In its formal written request to the state, the Group requested consideration of the downtown site as a sole source project because of its unique features and cost profile. This is what was presented:
“A downtown location is highly desirable for the new courthouse because it offers walking access to restaurants, banks, stores, service stations, law library, public library, and many other points of interest. All of these factors are important to attorneys, employees, jurors and other court users who have limited time during the lunch hour. In addition, for the City of Yreka, maintaining a vibrant downtown is critical to its economic development plans. Dating back as far as the 1850’s, the Siskiyou County Courthouse has always been the commercial, governmental, and criminal justice hub in downtown Yreka. A new courthouse would continue to anchor the downtown, and provide a landmark that would tie the businesses, government offices, criminal justice agencies, restaurants, and historical places of interest together. Placing the courthouse away from downtown would have a negative impact on the community, as the city’s commercial structure would be far less accessible and convenient.”
Think about that! And picture in your mind what our downtown would look like if the new courthouse was somewhere else. It would have gone against 170 years of history. And so much for a “vibrant” downtown.
Especially when you look at it from the perspective of today’s world of dysfunctional government at all levels, what the cooperative efforts our city, our county, our court, and state officials accomplished is nothing short of astounding. The downtown site for the new building was acquired by the county purchasing five privately owned structures with $1.2 million of the Courthouse Construction Funds and then contributing that property to the state. In addition, the county contributed property it already owned that the old Stage office and a few other outbuildings had occupied; this allowed enough of a footprint for the new courthouse to be built on 2.4 acres. In addition to the space needed for the new building itself, parking was also needed. The county and the city contributed land they owned east of Fourth Street between Butte and South Streets, previously a parking lot and the Public Defender’s Office, for the new courthouse’s much needed 130 parking stalls. The private property owners had been contacted and were willing to sell their homes and commercial properties at fair market value for the good of the cause.
Because of this, at an early stage we could say to the state with confidence: “We’ve got the site locked up! We’re ready to go!” Since site acquisition carried such weight with the state in deciding where to spend the money, our project was moved up to a high level of priority, and approved early on.
Next time: the state giveth, then tryeth to taketh away.