Inyo Superior Court’s two Courthouse Facilities Projects have been indefinitely paused, and, according to local officials, are “in grave jeopardy of cancellation” due to state budget cuts.
These projects include the new, $33 million court facility in Bishop, and a $1.5 million facility in Independence.
Because California trial courts are state-funded, court projects are subject to the annual state budget distributions permitted by the governor. Last year alone, California’s justice system, the largest in the nation, was hit with $1.1 billion in cuts. As a result, more than $450 million of court construction funds were borrowed, swept to the General Fund, or reallocated to judicial branch budget operations.
The Inyo Superior Court SB 1407 Court bond-funded facility, which the Judicial Council decided was to be built in Bishop, was one of the projects that was immediately delayed until it could be reassessed by a Judicial Council Working Group next month.
In addition to putting the new court project on hold, the state has notified Inyo Courts that it will be taking funds that were kept in a local maintenance account for the construction of the new facility in Independence.
According to Inyo County Superior Court Executive Officer Tammy Grimm, “This is why there was very little progress on facility acquisition and construction projects in Fiscal Year 2011-12, although the court’s administrators and judges kept the issues at the forefront and on the state’s radar. The leadership of the Inyo County Superior Court continued, by any avenue that we could, to publicly express the urgency and importance of immediately continuing courthouse facility projects in Inyo County.”
This year, the 2012-13 state budget delivered another $455 million blow to local courts.
The Governor’s May Revise and Final Budget included an order that $50 million be diverted from the court construction program to trial court operations each year.
Because of these funding reductions, the judicial branch was faced with having to indefinitely delay and reassess many planned courthouse projects, including Inyo’s.
“In this fiscal year, approximately $60 million is all that is available for all the courthouse construction projects being considered at this time,” a press release from Inyo Superior Court states. “Even more crippling, the Governor’s final budget, signed in late June 2012, directed that any court with money in bank accounts or savings must use it to help absorb $235 million of the state’s deficit.”
According to Grimm, “this meant that all financial resources that had been saved by a court were considered ‘available funds’ to be swept for court operations to counterbalance the state’s shortfall.”
Grimm went on to say that “the state would not consider the reason why funds were in the court’s accounts – they had a ‘no exceptions’ policy. If there was money in a bank account, it was considered available funds to offset the budget deficit.”
That includes the $1.5 million the local courts had saved to construct the new court facility adjacent to the jail in Independence.
“The Superior Court leadership has been and will continue to fight at the state level in support of the Inyo Court Facilities projects,” the press release from the courts states. “At several statewide meetings, Inyo Court’s judges and court administrators have vocally contested the state’s sweep of our savings.”
Grimm said local court officials “wrote dozens of letters to legislative representatives, AOC officials and finance personnel. We even went and fought in person at the Trial Court Budget Working Group and Judicial Council, where Judge (Brian) Lamb spoke to the council members urging them not to eliminate the funding for the Independence Court facility and further impact our citizens. The final result was an acknowledgement that this was unjust and unfair, but that no exceptions of any kind would be made.”
Grimm said the local courts have not given up hope, and will continue to attend state meetings where additional funding or emergency funding is discussed in an effort to build the Independence jail-adjacent facility.
“We remain hopeful that the Judicial Council will right this wrong in the future,” she said.
As for the new facility project, Grimm said she and Judge Lamb will be making a presentation, at the request of the Judicial Council’s Facilities Working Group, on Sept. 5, to determine which bond-funded projects will go forward.
“The court recognizes that many citizens were not pleased with the Judicial Council’s selection process or their decision to place the bond-funded courthouse in Bishop,” Grimm said. “However, the fact is that Inyo County needs and would benefit from new court facilities. We need new court facilities in both Independence and Bishop, and we are hoping for community support in bringing those construction projects to Inyo County.”
“The court’s administrators and judges want to assure the public that we will continue to maintain full services in both Independence and Bishop,” Superior Court Judge Dean Stout said. “We are committed to access to justice and these facilities setbacks will not impact our dedication and duty to the citizens to maintain effective court services.”