The Public Eye

Reports from the Bee's investigative team

May 18, 2010
Money Trail: Court upkeep costs big bucks

Being a landlord is a real headache sometimes. Just ask the Administrative Office of the Courts, which took over control - and maintenance - of state court facilities from the counties.

The AOC - the staff agency of the state courts' policy -making body, the Judicial Council - took control of the courthouses in 2003 as part of a broader effort to centralize control of the state's judicial branch.

As a result, the office is now responsible for all of the costly little fixes that arise. The AOC approved $27.3 million worth of "Trial Court Facility Modification Costs" for fiscal year 2008-09, of which $7.9 million have been completed. Another $27.3 million in costs were approved for this year, of which $5.3 million had been spent as of April 12, according to a cost breakdown obtained by The Bee from one of the many state judges complaining about AOC spending.

Click here ( Trial Court Facility Mod Costs.pdf ) to see the full list and hunt for your own eyebrow-raisers. It cost $8,021 to remove gum from in front of the Sacramento Superior Court; $20,000 has been approved to replace clocks in the 44 courtrooms in Sacramento; it cost $1,669 to replace "broken feminine dispensers" in the Fresno County Courthouse; $3,141 was spent at the Madera County Superior Court to replace junipers near the front entrance with rose bushes.

"The top priority of the courts should be to stay open," said Dan Goldstein, a San Diego Superior Court judge and one of the directors of the Alliance of California Judges, a group formed to rail against AOC spending and Judicial Council leadership. "We're seeing precious resources being spent on rose bushes and scraping gum off the sidewalks."

It's important to know that the judicial branch has been in a state of turmoil for some time as Chief Justice Ronald George (seen above swearing in the governor) has continued his push to centralize control of the courts, which had operated for decades as virtual fiefdoms. Some judges' discontent bubbled to the surface last summer after the Judicial Council started closing state courts one day a month to save money. This prompted some on the bench to complain that costly construction projects, a massive ongoing computer project and the ballooning AOC staff should be cut before closing courthouse doors.

And, despite the occasional eyebrow raiser, most of the items on the maintenance list actually seem pretty normal.

"As you can see, the vast majority of the items are routine maintenance expenses such as fixing leaky pipes, removing asbestos from workplaces, repairing leaking roofs, etc.," AOC spokesman Philip Carrizosa wrote in an email to The Bee. "To be sure, some of the items were quite expensive such as repairing the roof at the Wiley Manuel Courthouse in Oakland (line 14) which was built in 1982 and whose roof was nearly 10 years past its useful life."

-- Robert Lewis

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