Courthouse Costs Engender Controversy

By: - May 2, 2012 12:00 am

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez vetoed .37 million for furnishings, fixtures and security cameras in Santa Fe’s new district courthouse. The court may not be able to open in December as planned. (AP)

The First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe, New Mexico, operates in a dilapidated building that was converted from a junior high school in the 1970s. Wastebaskets line the hallways to collect water when it rains. Over the years, inadequate security has left the court vulnerable to multiple escapes and attempted escapes, and one shooting.

“Inmates have to be escorted through the public areas and private offices of staff to the courtrooms from the holding cells,” says Barbara Vigil, the district’s chief judge. “You don’t want to expose the public to incarcerated individuals who may choose to try to escape or harm the public.”

Many courthouses around the country, like the one in Santa Fe, have tremendous structural deficiencies and maintenance needs. Years of putting off routine maintenance have left them in such disrepair that abandoning the building and starting from scratch is often the most cost-effective option. “Building a new building can in many cases be less expensive, but cost is not the only factor,” says Chang-Ming Yeh, principal judicial facility planner at the National Center for State Courts. “There may be some other political and community considerations.” Yeh says many state courts have drawn up plans in recent years, but few have had the resources to actually complete major projects.

Those that have been able to embark on projects have had to navigate a thorny political environment that is particularly sensitive to cost overruns or anything that could be interpreted as a frill.

Questions about equitable distribution of funds among a state’s judiciary intensify when budgets are tight. A new million building constructed for the First District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee, Florida, became popularly known as the “Taj Mahal” courthouse because of its extravagant flourishes. Why should judges in one court have private bathrooms with granite countertops, it was asked, while other Florida courts lacked funds to deal with basic maintenance needs, such as functional air conditioners?

In Santa Fe’s First Judicial District, a new million courthouse scheduled to open in downtown Santa Fe in December has been in the works for a decade. The project has been plagued by delays and cost overruns related to contamination from gas stations that used to operate nearby. Now, those problems have led to a political standoff that may force the court to continue operating in its current inadequate facility even after the new building is ready to go. 

The reason is simple: The court has no money for furniture, fixtures and technology, including security cameras. Governor Susana Martinez unexpectedly singled out .37 million in the state’s capital budget that was intended for those purposes and blocked the completion of the interior with a line-item veto in March.

Buying Quality

Chief Judge Vigil says the court was asking only for what was needed and nothing that could be seen as frivolous. The court serves a population of about 200,000, with 700 people moving through on a typical day. “We certainly have not requested the most expensive items,” she says. “But by the same token, we haven’t requested the least expensive items either. We believe we must purchase quality in order for the items to withstand the day-to-day extensive use.”

Still, the request has come under fire in the local media. “Would you buy a chair for ,000?” began an April 16 story in the Santa Fe New Mexican.  “The First Judicial District judges would, with public tax funds.”

After the governor’s veto, the court scaled back its request to .04 million and prepared a case for an emergency grant or loan from the state Board of Finance. Governor Martinez also chairs that body.

The Board considered the second request on Monday during an almost 9-hour special meeting that turned quite testy. The governor grilled Vigil about the project’s history of cost overruns and argued that Santa Fe County should bear the costs of furnishing the courthouse.

Governor Martinez argued that .6 million out of million in bonds for the courthouse was spent on environmental remediation that the state Environment Department had advised the county against performing, with the result an additional ,000 fee from the contractor. “I add up these dollars not saying that it is not deserving to have the best courthouse,” she said.  “But when people in Santa Fe said ‘we are willing to pay higher taxes,’ did they know that they were going to throw away .6 million on the remediation of property that the Environment Department had informed the county was contaminated?”

The board did not approve the request and seems reluctant to do so in the future, although it agreed to appoint a subcommittee to meet with county officials to seek a solution. Still, some finance board members indicated sympathy for the court’s plight. The state and the county disagree on whose responsibility it is to provide furniture for the new courthouse, but it’s clear that new furniture is needed. The cost of moving the old furniture would exceed its current value. “I’ve seen your furniture, and I wouldn’t want to sit on it,” said board member Robert Aragon.

Taj Mahal

The situation in Florida goes beyond inefficiency. It involves a scandal. Chief Judge Paul Hawke of the First District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee resigned in January so that he wouldn’t have to face misconduct charges for his role in planning the “Taj Mahal” courthouse. The million building was the result of extensive lobbying by Hawke and another judge, according to an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times. “The two spent so much time walking the halls of the Legislature that some lawmakers wondered when they had time to be judges,” according to the newspaper,  which broke the story in August of 2010.

The courthouse, which opened in December 2010, prompted public outrage for its lavish design choices at a time when the court system was suffering from drastic funding cuts. The plans called for spacious chambers for each judge, private judicial kitchens and bathrooms with granite countertops, and 60-inch flat screen televisions trimmed in mahogany. The televisions were eventually scrapped.

In February the Florida Supreme Court responded to the scandal by enacting new rules that prohibit judges from lobbying the legislature without formal approval. A number of judges and groups of judges object to the rules and are asking the Court to reconsider them, which it has agreed to do.

Whose Responsibility?

No other state has had a Taj Mahal scandal, but many of them face difficult decisions when it comes to operating and maintaining state court facilities. California transferred control of courthouse maintenance from local to state control in 2002 with the goal of making sure that buildings were properly taken care of. That hasn’t proven to be a cheap or easy task. The legislature approved a billion program in 2008 to meet statewide needs, but planned projects are frequently criticized for extravagance even through the status quo is understood by all to be unacceptable. “Downtown San Diego is a sprawling complex of horrors,” a narrator says in a video produced by the state courts to showcase the state judiciary’s needs. “There is literally an active earthquake fault directly beneath the north tower. Security is grossly inadequate.”

To respond to sensitivities about the projects’ costs in the face of budget constraints, California’s Judicial Council announced on April 24 that it is reassessing 13 planned court construction and renovation projects for possible cancellation or modification. Another 24 projects had their budgets cut.  

Justice Brad Hill of the Fifth District Court of Appeals, who presided over the Judicial Council’s Facilities Working Group, says that the projects being reviewed or canceled weren’t frivolous, but that the group has been able to find a lot of ways to save money. Still, quality counts and they don’t want to be in the same situation a decade or so down the road. “Many of these courthouses literally have hundreds of thousands of people going through them in a year,” he says. “They get very hard use. If we don’t have building materials that will hold up, it becomes a drain financially not to have done it right the first time. We have to build facilities that are durable.”

Hill understands the frustrations that come with working in dilapidated facilities from the years he spent on the Fresno Superior Court. “We had an asbestos problem,” he says. “We had leaks in the roof. We had chunks of the building that would fall off. We regularly had to cordon off the sidewalk because it looked like a chunk was going to fall off the building.” They had to reroute the lines of jurors waiting outside to minimize the safety hazards involved.

Yeh, of the National Center for State Courts, says that “for most of the projects, no one really intended to waste the taxpayers’ money… It really depends on the design quality and standards they use. I do think some of the projects are way too expensive. There are some things that you can do without; it’s just like when you build a house.”

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Melissa Maynard

Melissa Maynard oversees the Pew state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource, which helps policymakers understand fiscal, economic, and demographic trends affecting their states by tracking tax revenue, reserves, employment rates, Medicaid spending, and other issues important to long-term fiscal health.