There was the Twilight saga in books and movies, the Watergate saga in politics and the Royal Family saga involving Prince Charles and Lady Diana.
Now there is the saga of the new courthouse for the Imperial County Superior Court. What it lacks in suspense, drama and intrigue it more than makes up for in real-life consequences. The historic courthouse at 939 W. Main St. in El Centro busted its seems decades ago, leading to the need for expanded satellite courts.
Hope seemed to be on the horizon earlier in the decade when land was purchased near Wake Avenue and Eighth Street in El Centro for a new 47,000-square-foot courthouse. It would create room for four more courtrooms and administration offices, but the current facility would remain open for civil, traffic, small claims and family-law cases.
But the hopes for a new courthouse were dashed in 2016 by state-level funding shortfalls—the new building is clocking in at just under $50 million.
However, the money logjam was recently cleared and the state Judicial Council gave the go-ahead. Ground has been broken and an opening is planned for early 2021.
The 47,000 square foot facility is funded through the Judicial Council of California, the oversight agency of the superior courts in each of the state’s 58 counties. Among its numerous responsibilities are construction of court facilities.
In explaining how the path was cleared, Blaine Corren, Judicial Council public affairs officer, stated in a Feb. 15 email that previously new courthouses were supported through court user fees and penalties rather than taxpayer revenues.
That funding model was abandoned by the state Legislature and not used for the current 2018-19 fiscal year budget negotiations, Merrill Balassone, another council public affairs officer, said in Feb. 20 telephone interview.
“The Trial Court Facilities Act of 2002, Senate Bill 1732, transferred responsibility and ownership of court facilities from counties to the state, in addition to providing a mechanism and fee increases for funding the construction of these facilities,” said Balassone. “Also, SB 1407 (2008), was enacted to increase various fees to support the construction of court facilities.”
However, Balassone noted the revenues anticipated from the two bills fell short of the estimate and as such in 2016 the Judicial Council suspended plans to build 17 courthouses, including Imperial County’s. Already purchased, the land then sat vacant.
Hope, however, was restored with the 2018-19 state budget.
“So, consistent with the transfer of responsibility for court facilities to the state (from counties), the fiscal 2018-19 budget approved by the Legislature and signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brow earmarked $1.3 billion in lease-revenue bonds for construction of 10 courthouse projects,” added Balassone.
The approved bonds will be repaid from the state general fund, she explained, adding, “This funding structure is a departure from previous practice, where court construction was bond funded and paid back through fines and fees levied on users.”
Bonds will be repaid over 25 years and “this new model is more sustainable,” she said.
Key milestones in the construction process but with no exact timeline are:
Hensel Phelps Construction Company is contracted as the construction manager.
Manager mails bid packages to construction professionals for a construction team.
The construction site enters preparation, a foundation will be poured, the core of the building and protective shell will be completed.
Interior fixtures and finishes are next to be completed.
The newly constructed building undergoes quality control check
The building is inspected; issued a certificate of occupancy.
However, there may be another chapter yet to be written in this saga. In conjunction with the new El Centro courthouse the Judicial Council will close the popular Brawley court. That could lead to another battle, though the prospects for success for anyone wishing to change the council’s mind on that seem uncertain at best.