The Septuagenarian Speaks – Published January 20, 2021, Siskiyou Daily News
On July 12, 2016 Siskiyou County Superior Court Presiding Judge William Davis and Court Executive Officer Mary Frances McHugh had to perform a difficult and heart-breaking task. They had scheduled an emergency session with the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors to deliver some terrible news. The state was on the verge of taking away the funds designated for constructing the new courthouse in Yreka. Commencement of actual construction of the project was just weeks away; a $69 million project that would take two years to build. Planning for the project had been ongoing for more than a decade. Court CEO Mary Frances McHugh explained to the Board that the crisis was outside of the county’s control. The special fund used to pay the debt service funding 23 court construction projects statewide, created September 26, 2008 by Senate Bill 1407, came from fines collected by the courts. But between 2010 and 2013, when the state was in fiscal crisis, the governor took $1.4 billion of the special fund, and had not repaid it. The $1.4 billion would have paid for all 23 projects. Siskiyou County’s project was the first priority of those 23 projects, and shovel-ready. She told the Board, “The community has invested $5,000,000 in the project … In March 2016 the state asked Siskiyou to take interim financing instead of having a bond sale for just a single project. Siskiyou agreed. Four months later, Siskiyou is being told the path the State asked us to take will mean no funding at all. It will mean the death of the project, a waste of a community contribution of nearly $5,000,000, and it will create a blight in the center of the community.”
Essentially, the money earmarked for our shovel-ready project, which had come from fines collected by the courts, was made unavailable due to dysfunctional actions of state government bureaucratic agencies working at cross-purposes.
Judge Davis and Ms. McHugh had asked the board to submit a letter to the governor and state legislature to correct the situation. Supervisor Grace Bennett presented a draft of such a letter, which hit the nail on the head. Here is an excerpt: “Siskiyou County has a project to build a state courthouse. This project should be allowed to proceed as currently proposed and approved. This is a project that is on a path which was determined for us by the state. Now the state is pulling up the track in front of the train. Derailing the project at this point will destroy this project. This project is truly ‘shovel ready.’ This project is the only courthouse which could feasibly be built in the next two years. It has received all required approvals. Bids expire August 19, 2016. The 8 houses and buildings which are on the project site are vacant and ready for removal … This would be the only courthouse in Siskiyou County. Courthouse projects are infrastructure. This infrastructure is as important, or more important than potholes on I-5 or bridges, as courthouses are the front line access to justice and give this lofty ideal daily meaning.”
The specter of derailing the project at such a late stage was dire. The county, the city, and the community had invested $5 million to lay the groundwork so the state could build the courthouse. To make room for the project, four private property owners agreed to sell and move out. Three were homes and one was an office. Although they were compensated by the county for the value of their properties and their expenses, there are some things that monetary compensation can never adequately cover. A friend, Mary Ellen Rock, had lived in her house since the seventies, and, with a heavy heart, agreed to sell and vacate so the new courthouse could be built. The house had been a wedding present to her from her late husband, Jim.
There were huge practical issues. Besides the four privately-owned buildings, four other county-owned structures had been vacated and were ready to be torn down. If the project was permanently derailed, the county would have to figure out what to do with them, and, meanwhile the vacant buildings could become a public nuisance. The situation was devastating for the workers and their families involved in the actual construction. A two-year $69 million project takes a lot of planning and mobilization. The contractor, subcontractors, employees and suppliers had tied up large blocks of time and resources for the project.
And then there was the obvious. The county desperately needed a new courthouse, and the stars had lined up just right for it to be accomplished. If it didn’t happen then, there was little likelihood it would ever happen. The situation seemed hopeless.
The California State Judicial Council is the policymaking body of California’s courts. While it is the state legislature that taxes and budgets the state’s revenue, it is the Judicial Council that allocates the money that the judicial branch receives. Therefore, the Judicial Council controlled whether funds would be authorized for courthouse construction projects, and, if so, which projects would have priority. In August, 2016, the Judicial Council was deeply concerned about dramatic reduction in funding for courts’ general operations, which had been ongoing for three years. The courts were hurting. On the local level, Ms. McHugh recalls that, “by 2016 we were at 50% of where we were in 2013.”
On August 11, 2016, the Council met to discuss the status of 17 statewide courthouse projects, including Siskiyou’s, that were in some stage of development when the funds were pulled. Siskiyou County sent a delegation to present our case to the Judicial Council. The delegation included Ms. McHugh, Presiding Judge William Davis, County Supervisor Grace Bennett, and County Counsel Frank DeMarco. The Judicial Council examined each of the 17 projects, and ultimately determined that none would be funded. All project activity was suspended indefinitely. Needless to say, it was a morose group of people who had to bring home the bad news of the Judicial Council’s decision. One slight ray of hope did come out of that meeting. Although the Council denied funding for all of the projects, they did make a firm commitment that Siskiyou County’s project would be given priority “if and when” funding was resumed. Later, this commitment would be important.
So, how did the derailed train get rolling again? Last week, Renee´ McCanna Crane, our court’s current CEO, told me, “The good news is that in the 2018-19 Budget Act, the governor and legislature allocated funding for 10 courthouse capital projects to move forward, Siskiyou being one of them. The groundbreaking took place on March 1st of 2019. The project is expected to be completed in early spring.”
The state’s 2018-2019 budget was signed by Governor Brown June 27, 2018, almost two years after courthouse construction was “suspended indefinitely.” When the funds were abruptly yanked in 2016, the very reasonable fear was that it would be the death knell for our project, and we would never again get the opportunity. There was a reasonable concern that “if and when funding is resumed” might be never, but that even if it were, by then our relatively small project would be lost in the shuffle, pushed aside by bigger, more politically important, projects. Why didn’t that happen? It was because of the resolute determination of the people from our county, city, and court, who worked together to lay the groundwork, and then to keep the project alive in Sacramento. In this series of articles, I have tried to give credit to those people, knowing many others also contributed. One I haven’t mentioned was Judge Laura Masunaga, now retired. She was a former Presiding Judge of our court, and worked quietly but tirelessly to keep our project alive. Mary Frances McHugh said this of Judge Masunaga’s efforts: “I was serious when I said Judge Masunaga was magnificent. She worked years on this project; served on the Judicial Council committee that made decisions about these projects, got to know the process and the people. Her steady, cool demeanor brought her respect from Judicial Council colleagues. I think the commitment made to our court at the August 11th Judicial Council meeting was the fruit of her work on that committee.”
Well, it’s been a ride, but this spring our new courthouse will be open for business, a historic event. Many of our local people worked long and hard to make this happen. They should be thanked and congratulated.