SLO's downtown courthouse is a 'high risk' to collapse in an earthquake. Is there a fix?
The San Luis Obispo County Courthouse — a building hundreds of people enter every day for work or to conduct business — is seismically unsafe and presents a "substantial" risk for loss of life in the event of a major earthquake, a new report says.
The building was one of more than 100 court buildings in the state found to be unsafe and among 56 that were listed as a priority for retrofitting, according to architects who presented their findings to a facilities committee of the Judicial Council of California on May 17. In a serious earthquake, the side of the building on Monterey Street could face "substantial structural damage."
The state has been slow to address needed repairs to the buildings, even though residents have been paying fees and fines that go into a fund for construction costs, because the money was used to cover other state expenses during the recession.
The courthouse in downtown San Luis Obispo is used by about 1,200 people a day, according to courthouse staff. Owned by the county but the responsibility of the state, the facility is really two buildings with two different safety ratings.
The building on Palm Street that was built in the early 1960s is identified as a "moderate risk" in an earthquake. The building on Monterey Street that was built in the early 1980s is the side identified as "high risk." A spokesman with the Judicial Council confirmed the location with the author of the report.
All the court activity — civil, criminal, traffic and family court — takes place in the "high risk" side of the building. About 80 people work there and an average of 43 inmates, whose mobility is limited by shackles, are shuttled from the County Jail to stand before a judge each day.
The 44 buildings across the state that architects identified as "high risk" rated between a one and 10 on a seismic risk rating. The higher the number, the higher the risk. The San Luis Obispo Courthouse was rated 3.1.
It could be worse. The report identifies 12 structures as "very high risk." One building in Los Angeles County was rated 44.2.
"There are courthouses in every area of the state that are seismically insufficient," Judge Brad R. Hill, chair of Court Facilities Advisory Committee, said during the May 17 meeting.
The study looked at potential damage that would happen in a rare, large earthquake using current earthquake models from FEMA. It's based on a seismic event with a once-in-a-thousand-year chance of occurring in that particular location — a magnitude 7.9 earthquake on the San Andreas fault is one of the dominant contributors to the rating.
When the report was presented, Hill said the ratings were an "extremely important factor when trying to figure out which facilities should precede (with renovations)."
Some courthouses have been replaced in recent years, including one in Yuba City and another in San Diego, but moving construction forward on others has been slow because there simply isn't the money.
Millions of dollars collected through court fines and fees from San Luis Obispo residents have gone to a state court facilities fund, yet the state isn't allocating money to make the building safe. According to the Judicial Council of California, the problems won't be fixed until legislators return $1.4 billion that was swiped from the court facilities fund to help balance the state budget through the Great Recession.
It would cost between $17 million and $22 million to fix the San Luis Obispo County Courthouse, and between $1.6 billion and $2 billion to retrofit all the buildings that were found to be "very high" or "high risk."
"Court-user fees and fines went into the courthouse construction fund to replace deficient buildings. That's what people thought their money was going for, and we hope that someday that's where it will go," Hill said.
He said he was hopeful that the revised state budget released in May would do that. It didn't.
"We understand that when the money was taken from the court facilities funds — the serious nature of the state's finances. We were happy to help. Now, the budget is balanced," Hill said. "Now is the time for the legislature to return the money."