Funded by Senate Bill 1407
Initial Funding Year: FY 2009-2010
The Superior Court of California, County of Merced operates in court facilities that serve population centers principally located near the Interstate 5 and Highway 99 corridors. The courthouse for western Merced residents lies in Los Banos.
The Los Banos Courthouse is a county-owned, shared-use building constructed in 1980. The court occupies approximately a third of the building's 15,000 square feet, with a single courtroom and associated space for court operations. Currently, the court conducts felony, misdemeanor, traffic, drug court, limited civil, and small claims calendars here. The facility is overcrowded, functionally deficient, and significantly lacking in security features to current standards.
The project will replace the current courthouse with a modern, secure, and functionally appropriate courthouse. It will expand court services in western Merced County by providing a jury assembly room and adding a family law division and family law proceedings, including mediation and self-help services. It will also provide one additional courtroom to accommodate a planned new judgeship. Acquisition of the site for the courthouse, 4.6 acres at G Street on the north side of Mercey Springs Road, was completed in January 2012.
California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) Compliance
The AOC complied with CEQA by filing a categorical exemption for this project's preferred site on August 12, 2011.
Williams + Paddon
Construction Manager at Risk
What is the impact of the state’s current budget crisis on this project?
The state Budget Act for fiscal year 2011–2012 contained unprecedented cuts to the judicial branch budget in general and to the account that funds SB 1407 projects in particular. Taking account of the state’s continuing fiscal crisis, in April 2012, the Judicial Council approved cost-reduction measures affecting all projects funded by SB 1407. News release.
As a result, this project will be required to undergo a significant reduction in its hard construction budget. This project has been designated a cost-reduction demonstration project, which means it will use lower-cost construction methods, such as tilt-up construction. This web page will be updated with a revised budget and schedule once approved by the judicial branch as well as the state executive and legislative branches.
Who is the AOC, and why are they managing this project?
The Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) is the staff arm of the Judicial Council of California. The Judicial Council is the policymaking body for the California court system, including the trial courts, known as “Superior Courts,” based in each county. Among other responsibilities, the AOC is primarily responsible for planning, acquisition, design, and construction of court facilities.
Why is a new courthouse needed?
The current courthouse in Los Banos has significant deficiencies which adversely impact access to justice. The facility is unsafe, substandard in size, overcrowded with many physical conditions which create impediments to the administration of justice. The Judicial Council's functional study of the courthouse indicates that the court needs more than five times the square footage it currently occupies in order to meet current design standards for proper security, public access, and operational efficiency.
For example, approximately 330 people enter the building on a daily basis. The public enters and exits the building via a single set of double doors, making ingress and egress very congested. The building lacks a jury assembly room, so current juror check-in and assembly take place in the hallways. The building lacks secure hallways and holding cells adjacent to courtrooms, so in-custody defendants use the same hallways as the public and staff. The court's space is also not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The building has a very low seismic rating, and the site has very limited parking for staff and public use.
Who decides where the new courthouse will be located?
In deciding where to locate the new courthouse, the AOC is working closely with the Superior Court and a Project Advisory Group, which includes members of the court, and representatives from the legal community, the Sheriff’s Office, the County of Merced, and the City of Los Banos. The AOC and the Project Advisory Group followed a standard site selection policy and process. The process involves objectively defining criteria for potential courthouse sites, evaluating all potential available sites, and selecting at least two sites that meet agreed-upon criteria for the proposed new courthouse for the Los Banos area within the limits of the project’s budget and schedule. With the assistance of a local real estate broker, the AOC identified possible sites, and the Project Advisory Group ranked the sites according to the selection criteria.
Have potential sites been selected?
The AOC is working closely with the PAG to select a site. One site, approximately 4.5 acres of an 11-acre parcel at the northwest corner of Hwy 152 and Mercy Springs Road (Gateway Development Site), was approved by the State Public Works Board (SPWB) on April 8, 2011. However, new information from the City and the local community has prompted the AOC and the PAG to perform a preliminary evaluation on another site that may be considered for site selection approval.
Why does the AOC decide where the new court is built? Why isn't this a County decision?
Historically, trial courts functioned largely as County departments, but that changed in 2002, with passage of the Trial Court Facilities Act. This law made the State of California responsible for court facilities statewide, rather than the counties. The law gave the Judicial Council responsibility for facilities owned or occupied by the courts and made the AOC responsible for operations, maintenance, and repairs, as well as site acquisition, planning, design, and construction of capital projects that replace or renovate courthouses. The AOC works closely with each affected Superior Court and justice agency stakeholders throughout the process of replacing or renovating courthouses, but ultimately the decisions are made by the Judicial Council or delegated to the Administrative Director of the Courts, the director of the AOC. By Rules of Court, the AOC involves the public primarily through the Project Advisory Group, although depending on the needs of the project, the AOC also seeks direct public input at various stages.
Would potential sites be selected near neighborhoods, parks and other public areas?
Ease of public access and adequate parking to the new site is one of the primary criteria for choosing a location for this new courthouse. Affordability of land within the assigned budget is also a requirement. It is also important to locate courthouses close to justice partners in order to promote efficiency. Most sites identified during the search are adjacent to residential areas, which may be a result of the size and development patterns of the city. Current building standards for courthouses include design features, such as a single public entrance, setbacks from the street, traffic flow, parking, and security features for transport of in-custody defendants, that assure that courthouses can serve their many users while remaining close to the communities they serve. The AOC has located courthouses in other communities with adjacencies similar to those of the preferred site in Los Banos, and will continue to evaluate some of these issues as the site undergoes environmental assessment under CEQA.
How much land is required for the project?
A minimum of 4.5 acres is required for the courthouse and associated surface parking.
How soon will a site be purchased?
To keep the project on schedule, the AOC expects to conclude negotiations and secure site acquisition approval for the new courthouse site by the State Public Works Board before the end of 2011. The timeline is subject to change.
Who will be the lead agency for CEQA? How and when will environmental reviews be conducted?
The AOC will be the lead agency for environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The AOC tentatively expects to complete a categorical exemption or a mitigated negative declaration for the project. The CEQA process will commence immediately.
Why is money being spent on a new courthouse when there are so many other local needs and there is a state budget crisis?
The project is solely funded and managed by the State of California. Funds have been specifically approved by the state Legislature for courthouse construction. These funds come from increased court fees and fines; therefore, construction of new courthouses is paid by “user fees” and not money from the state's General Fund.
How is the new courthouse being funded?
The courthouse will be funded from statewide increases in court user fees, authorized by Senate Bill 1407, which passed in 2008. This bill approved the issuance of up to $5 billion in lease-revenue bonds to fund this and 40 other projects throughout the state. The bonds will be repaid with court fees, penalties, and assessments.
What is the impact of the state’s current budget crisis on this project?
The state Budget Act for fiscal year 2011–2012 contained unprecedented cuts to the judicial branch budget in general and to the account that funds SB 1407 projects in particular. These cuts are expected to cause delays in certain projects. However, the specific impact on this project won’t be known for several months. In the meantime, the project is proceeding in its current phase. This project web page will be updated with any changes as they are determined.
How will the local community have input regarding the courthouse project?
Key community leaders have been involved as members of the Project Advisory Group; members are listed on the project's web page. The AOC will conduct public information meetings at several stages in the project. The public will also be invited to participate in the project's environmental review process.
How many courtrooms will be in the new courthouse? Will the new courthouse provide space for any county departments?
The proposed courthouse is approximately 29,500 square feet and includes two courtrooms. The AOC is not authorized to use any SB 1407 funds for construction of county facilities.
Will new County offices be located close to the new courthouse?
As the site selection process proceeds, the AOC and the Court have been approached about potentially utilizing adjacent space on the preferred site for buildings to house County justice partners. However, the construction and operation of a new County building would be the County’s responsibility.
Who will design the building?
The AOC conducted a search for an architecture and engineering firm for this project. The request for qualifications went out January 29, 2010; proposals were due March 3, 2010. The AOC reviewed numerous proposals from highly qualified firms. A short list of candidates was announced in April 2010. The AOC and the Court participated in interviews of the short-listed candidate firms. On June 30, 2010, the AOC announced the final selection of Williams + Paddon Architects.
Will the project hire local contractors and use local suppliers? How will this help our community?
When the project is in architectural design, the AOC will select a construction manager, currently scheduled for summer 2011. The construction manager will perform local outreach to ensure that qualified local subcontractors and suppliers have the opportunity to bid on construction work when that phase nears. These projects provide valuable economic stimulus in local communities—the Los Banos Courthouse project is estimated to create more than 750 direct and indirect jobs. Construction is scheduled for early 2013 through early 2014.
Will the new courthouse be energy-efficient and sustainably designed?
Yes. All courthouse projects to be funded by SB 1407 are being designed to receive LEED Silver certification by the U.S. Green Building Council. This is a national standard for sustainable design, and energy efficiency is among its key criteria.
What are next steps on the project?
The AOC is currently performing its real estate due diligence studies and is authorized to start negotiations with the seller(s). Once the studies, negotiations, and CEQA analysis are complete, the AOC will obtain site acquisition approval from the State Public Works Board (SPWB). However, if another viable site recommended to the AOC and the PAG is found to be acceptable, the AOC will need to return to the SPWB for site selection approval. The Court and AOC recognize the need for further public dialogue and outreach and are still making plans to accomplish this objective as the project proceeds.
SAN FRANCISCO—The Judicial Council working group overseeing the judicial branch’s facilities program met on Wednesday in Sacramento to discuss criteria for scaling back statewide courthouse projects in light of the recent budget cuts to the judicial branch. By next year, nearly $1.5 billion of court user fees originally designated by the Legislature to be set aside for court construction will have been borrowed, transferred to the General Fund, or redirected to court operations. This year the Legislature directed that another $50 million be permanently diverted annually from the court construction program to trial court operations—which requires eliminating upwards of $500 million in projects.
“The court construction program must be radically refocused to accommodate the new fiscal realities of the judicial branch and the state,” said Justice Brad R. Hill chair of the Court Facilities Working Group and Administrative Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeal, Fifth Appellate District. “Our previous approach of reducing construction costs, while necessary and continuing, is likely to be inadequate. We now know that we will not be able to undertake all projects originally planned. I know this is distressing news for courts that have waited a long time to replace deteriorating facilities and I am committed to making this process open and transparent.
“The sad truth is that four years of deep budget cuts to the judicial branch have had and will continue to have significant impacts on court operations. These operational changes may also affect where new courthouses should be located and how large they need to be. These changes, along with significant cuts to court construction funding, dictate a fundamental relook at the slate of projects originally approved in 2008.” Current status of SB 1407 projects listed here
The working group will open a five-week public comment process to discuss potential criteria and a process to be used to reprioritize the 38 projects currently funded under Senate Bill 1407. Next week, draft criteria to be used for re-evaluating the projects and a decision-making process will be posted on the California Courts website’s Invitations to Comment page. The courts and the public are invited to provide written information on how the potential criteria apply to planned projects and to comment on the proposed process for selecting which projects should continue.
During a three-day open meeting of the working group in September, courts will present information about their projects, and the working group will then discuss which projects should proceed. The working group will report later in the year to the Judicial Council with recommendations on what projects to scale back or delay. Logistics for the September meeting will be posted here.
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