A tempting offer made by Inyo County to the state has paid off announced Judge Brian Lamb at a special Inyo County Board of Supervisors meeting held on Aug. 22 in Independence.
Lamb said the county dangled a free parcel of land adjacent to the jail in Independence as incentive to build a new courthouse, and the State’s Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), which holds control of court facilities, buildings and real estate as of the enactment of the Trial Court Facilities Act several years ago, has granted final approval and committed to a new court facility at that site.
The new courthouse will be approximately 10,000 square feet, with a courtroom and hearing room. It will offer greater security than the current historic courthouse on North Edwards Street, and will provide handicapped access. Judge Lamb also pointed out that because of its proximity to the jailhouse, the expense of transporting in custody defendants to and from court will be much less than it would be without a new facility, in which case the county might have to transfer defendants to the new Bishop courthouse. Said District 4 Supervisor Marty Fortney, this expense would “devastate the county budget.”
The cost estimate for the project is $4 million, with $1.5 million provided by court fee reserves, and $2.3 million from the AOC’s Courthouse Construction Funds.
Judge Lamb put forth a 1-2 year timeline for the facility. District 2 Supervisor Susan Cash responded, “You’re brave.” Judge Lamb explained that “usually site selection takes a long time,” but in this case, given the site has already been determined, design and construction might be underway before the new courthouse in Bishop—a $32 million project—selects its own site.
District 5 Supervisor Richard Cervantes offered the only criticism of the Independence Courthouse Project: “I couldn’t support building a new courthouse,” he said. “My personal view on the matter is the historic courthouse is the most beautiful we have in the county, and I know it can be remodeled if we choose to do so.”
The matter isn’t so simple, however, explained CAO Kevin Carunchio. Because the AOC now controls court facilities, the county has little to no say in construction or remodeling of those facilities.
“I will say that the situation at the Historic Courthouse is slightly more complicated than that,” said Carunchio, “as about 1/3 of the facility transferred to the state for Court Operations and the remaining 2/3 remains county property for county operations: Auditor, Treasurer, DA, Clerk, Library, etc.”
The entire arrangement is governed by several complex transfer and occupancy agreements mandated by the state; basically, any improvements to the court’s share of space to meet court needs would have to be funded by the state. But to the extent they impact the county, or affect the county’s share of the property, then the county would be responsible.
The county would not be able to match the AOC’s financial resources to make improvements; in recent years, it has only been able to budget $100,000-200,000 a year for deferred maintenance for over 50 county facilities. Therefore the likelihood of the county being able to participate in any improvement plan developed by the AOC or court would be remote, and, added Carunchio, “I don’t believe the AOC is interested in financing improvements to county property.”
Court Executive Officer Tammy Grumm offered some reassurance that the historic courthouse would be far from obsolete after the completion of the new courthouse.
“The historic courthouse will remain in operation,” she said. “The county will occupy the offices that the court vacates, giving the county much needed space.” She also noted that the courthouse would be kept in “museum quality,” and that “there are no plans to do anything but allow that it be maintained as a court, used for marriages and overflow.”
Although the county won’t have as much say as it might like in the new courthouse, Supervisor Cash made certain that “we’d have the opportunity to have someone from AOC come out and have a public meeting to explain the process.”
“I think we’d be delighted to do that,” replied Lamb.
The new Independence courthouse does not yet have a schedule; said AOC Office of Communications spokeswoman Teresa Ruano, “we need to do some work with the county to transfer the property first.”