State Officials Defend Plans To Replace Downtown Courthouse

Project To Replace Current San Diego Courthouse To Cost $642M

The state of California has a plan to fix and rebuild its crumbling courthouses -- a plan that will cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

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State officials say the average price to build a courthouse in California is $587 per square foot. The Administrative Office of the Courts plans to spend $642,596,000 on a new courthouse in downtown San Diego.

"The way that the state spends money on courthouses is extremely responsible and it's balanced," Associate Justice Jeffery Johnson said.

Johnson spoke on behalf of the state's courts and sits on a committee looking for ways to save taxpayers money on courthouse construction called the Courthouse Facilities Working Group. He said the group has already found ways to save money. (Read the state's "courthouse construction facts" by clicking here.)

"I would think it's going to be in the hundreds of millions," he said.

Across the state several project have been identified by critics as "opportunities to save money."

In Butte County, the state plans to spend more $76,947,000 to build a five-room courthouse. In Lake Tahoe, a one-room courthouse will cost taxpayers $747 a square foot. In Alpine County, the state recently canceled plans to spend $21,666 per resident to build a one-room courthouse.

"When you're looking at the cost per square foot, that's essentially the same as it is for a beachfront home; it's just offensive," Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher said.

Fletcher has been highly critical of those running state courts and how they spend taxpayer money. He was highly critical after several 10News investigations exposed court leaders spending a large amount of money on court maintenance, including more than $100 to change a single light bulb.

The investigations also detailed the courts' billion-dollar computer system -- a project that's been compared to the sinking of the Titanic.

"Should taxpayers trust our state courts to responsibly build these courthouses?" 10News investigative reporter Mitch Blacher asked.

"Well, based on the history, the answer is no," Fletcher said.

"I think what we're doing is absolutely responsible," Johnson said.

Johnson cited the conditions of many of California's courthouses. In San Diego's 52-year-old downtown courthouse, there are design flaws that cause security issues. There are incomplete fire systems and asbestos-filled hallways. (A list of deficiencies in the current San Diego courthouse and the reasons the state gives to replace it can be found here.)

The state plans to replace San Diego's central courthouse with a 71-courtroom, $642 million courthouse at a cost of $517 a square foot. (Click here to learn more about the state's downtown San Diego court plans.)

A study from the nation's leading construction cost estimating firm, RS Means, details how the state could build courthouses cheaper.

The study says San Diego's new courthouse could be built for as little as $216 a square foot. The highest estimate the study came up with was in Manhattan, where it claimed the state of New York could build an adequate courthouse for $269 a square foot.

New York and California court officials call the estimates "inaccurate."

"We look at everything to see if there are ways we can save money," Johnson said. (Click here to view a video produced by the state showing the condition of California courthouses.)

According to the state's Administrative Office of the Courts, California's courthouses are expensive because of construction materials, worker pay and the quality of construction necessary. (To search for any courthouse project conducted by the state, click here.)

The U.S. government is building a new courthouse in downtown San Diego for about half the estimated cost of the new state courthouse.

The new federal courthouse is estimated at $370 million. While considered small, it has similar construction costs and seismic considerations, according to state court officials.

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