State

State offers funds for new Stanislaus County courthouse

A proposal to renovate the aging downtown Modesto courthouse just got super-sized.

State judicial officials last month scrapped a plan to add courtrooms to the 50-year-old facility, recommending instead a new $277 million courthouse for Stanislaus County.

"It was an absolutely pleasant surprise," Superior Court Executive Officer Mike Tozzi said. "We believe it's better for the community, for public safety and for everybody who has and will visit the courthouse."

The funds, if given final approval in July, would not come from the state's general fund, which likely faces a $20 billion deficit.

Instead, the Legislature and Gov. Schwarzenegger in 2008 opted to raise the cost of parking tickets and other civil and criminal fines to repair and rebuild dangerous, outdated and inaccessible courthouses statewide.

The legislation was designed so the higher fees would produce enough money to pay for the initial stages of construction, then back the $5 billion in bonds to be sold once building starts.

So far, 41 projects in 34 counties have been given priority for construction money.

Stanislaus County's courthouse showed one of the most "immediate and critical needs" in California, said Teresa Ruano with the Administrative Office of the Courts.

The courtrooms look shabby and dated. The elevator tends to break down, and the toilets back up. Bailiffs must walk inmates, chained and handcuffed, across public hallways. Trials have been halted because courtrooms were too hot or cold. Judges make do with cramped quarters while staff members struggle to hang pictures on the brittle concrete walls.

"It's a dinosaur," Tozzi said of the building.

Defense attorney Robert Forkner, who has spent 16 years practicing law in the courthouse, agreed.

"It's bad," Forkner said. "It's hard on the judges and the lawyers because there's no facilities or rooms. And it's not aesthetically pleasing, that's for sure."

Ruano warned the money is not guaranteed. In recent months, court workers across California have faced layoffs, furloughs and budget cuts.

"Things could change," Ruano said. "With the state where it is, nothing is guaranteed 100 percent."

While the proposal more than doubles the amount of state money that may be allocated to the county, the plan includes few details. It is slated to include 26 courtrooms, but groundbreaking is likely at least five years away.

One of the biggest ifs: Officials have not decided if the project will be built on the original site -- covering three-quarters of a city block across from the Gallo Center for the Arts -- or elsewhere.

David Boring, a board member for the Downtown Improvement District, said he was excited about possible improvements to the courthouse but hopes it stays downtown. Boring said the courthouse helps contribute to the "downtown dynamic" -- government and legal professionals mixing with other patrons of the restaurant and nightlife scene.

"I love this mix," Boring said. "I think the court has been a vibrant part of our downtown."

The plan goes before the Legislative budget committee June 7. If approved, the state public works board will consider final approval July 12.

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.

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