San Diego

San Diego County's New Downtown Courthouse Faces Another Delay And Funding Challenges

At $555 million, it is the most expensive courthouse in California history

After lengthy delays, the most expensive courthouse in state history is scheduled to open on July 17 in downtown San Diego. But two critical parts of the $555 million project won’t be completed, and funding for those important elements remains in limbo.

Law enforcement officials and judges told NBC 7 Investigates that one of those uncompleted elements -- an underground tunnel to move inmates from the downtown jail to the new courthouse -- is critical for the safety of both the public and San Diego County sheriff deputies who transport those inmates.

"From a security standpoint, it just makes sense," said San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, who has been lobbying for the tunnel since it was dropped from the construction budget more than four years ago.

Without the 320-foot tunnel, Gore said deputies must load inmates into vans at the jail, drive them two blocks through downtown traffic to the courthouse, and unload them in the basement. Gore said that process increases risks for everyone.

“Any time you're out exposed to the public like that, it makes you more vulnerable to some type of an escape attempt by friends of an inmate,” Gore explained.

Though he expressed full confidence in his deputies, who are experienced and trained in transporting inmates, the Sheriff also said, “Any time you’re taking inmates off and on buses and loading them in and out of a jail into a courthouse, that creates more concern for our deputies and their personal safety.”

In 1992, a local inmate escaped from a Sheriff’s transport van in downtown San Diego. That inmate took the deputy’s gun then killed a nearby driver and hijacked his car.

There's also an added cost to taxpayers for moving inmates on city streets: Sheriff Gore said he must hire five additional deputies, at an annual cost of $450,000, plus a one time expenditure of $175,000 for three transport vans.

The state Judicial Council, which is responsible for all courthouse planning and construction in California, dropped plans for the tunnel when its estimated cost jumped from $3-5 million to $25 million.

According to an engineering study obtained by NBC 7 Investigates, the tunnel is a “challenging project” despite its short distance. The study cites the need to control ground movements, design a “dewatering” system, cross through an “active (earthquake) fault-zone” and “overcome restricted access and low headroom” for work crews.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Tony Maino told NBC 7 Investigates the Judicial Council knew from the start that no construction funds were available for the tunnel, “yet they advertised to everybody in this city that they were going to build a tunnel.” Maino has been an outspoken critic of the courthouse building process.

The Judicial Council denies Maino’s allegation.

In an email to NBC 7 Investigates, a spokesman for the Council said the tunnel was “reviewed and approved” by three agencies “as an integral part” of the courthouse project and was removed due to budget cuts made to all of the state’s courthouse construction projects.

NBC 7 Investigates has learned that the Judicial Council is quietly negotiating with the County of San Diego to find the money to build the tunnel. The Council owns the land occupied by the old courthouse and old county jail, but it hopes the county will assume ownership of that parcel and find a developer to build the tunnel as part of a master plan for redeveloping the land.

According to Maino, inflation and construction challenges will add millions more to the tunnel’s cost and make it difficult to find a developer willing to accept that challenge.

Any development deal would also involve the cost of demolishing or remodeling the old buildings, which have asbestos in their walls and ceilings

The original estimate for tearing down the buildings was $25 million, but on March 21, the Judicial Council told NBC 7 Investigates the cost has increased by at least 20 percent. Now, according to the Council, the estimate is between $30 and $35 million. That cost is likely to increase every month due to inflation and labor and equipment costs.

According to a San Diego county spokesman, the demolition could happen as soon as 2019, but Judge Maino predicts the negotiation and permitting process will take much longer.

Until a developer is found, the Judicial Council will pay only to fence off the property, and "do minimal maintenance to ensure the building is secure."

San Diego City Councilman Chris Ward, who represents the downtown area, acknowledges there are “serious challenges” in the demolition and development process.

"We have an unfunded project that is currently going to be a shell of a building and the downtown community is going to be frustrated if it sits empty for too long,” said Ward, who has a master’s degree in urban planning.

The councilman has pledged to speed-up the process, and do whatever possible to make sure the old courthouse site doesn’t end up like the old central library building on E Street, which has been empty, unused, and a magnet for the homeless since it closed four years ago.

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