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July 2009

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Judiciary Expresses Concerns On Courthouse Projects

The new courthouse construction projects on the Judiciary's Five-Year Courthouse Project Plan are carefully assessed and ranked, yet the projects were passed over in the President's fiscal year 2010 budget request, according to a representative of the Judicial Conference who testified in June in the Senate.

Chief Judge Joseph Bataillon (D. Neb.), chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on Space and Facilities, appeared before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government to express the Judiciary's concerns that the projects on the Judiciary's Five-Year Courthouse Project Plan were overlooked. According to Bataillon, that omission may delay by at least a year the Judiciary's 2010 courthouse projects and all projects in subsequent years.

Bataillon also noted that projects previously intended as privately-financed buildings have been re-directed to the federally-owned building path.

"The Judiciary was not consulted prior to this change in execution strategy," he said, adding that the re-direction comes "apparently at the expense of projects on our Five-Year Plan."

GSA Acting Administrator Paul F. Prouty also testified before the subcommittee on the GSA's FY 2010 budget request, which includes $53 million for U.S. courthouse projects in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Yuma, Arizona. As privately-financed projects, they were not on the Judiciary's Five-Year Plan.

Bataillon described for the subcommittee the process and criteria used to develop the Judiciary's Five-Year Courthouse Project Plan. The Plan itself is a key part of the Judiciary's long-range facilities planning process.

"The Plan consists of an ordinally-ranked list of new courthouse construction projects for which the Judiciary is requesting authorization, funding, and execution from the Executive and Legislative Branches," he said. The projects were evaluated by the Judicial Conference and its Space and Facilities Committee and placed on the Plan on the basis of year out of space (weighted 30 percent), security concerns (30 percent), operational concerns (25 percent), and judges without courtrooms (15 percent).

Cost containment is critical to the Judiciary's future ability to pay rent and personnel costs and, over the last four years, the Judiciary has undertaken several cost-containment initiatives that affect its space and facilities needs. Key components of these initiatives are revisions made to the courthouse planning process, which now place greater emphasis on building capacity—as opposed to building condition—when determining need. Privately-financed leased court buildings, Bataillon told the subcommittee, have never been placed on the Five-Year Plan, although Judicial Conference policy is that each such project is subject to approval by both the Space and Facilities Committee and the Judicial Conference, and if approved, it is with a specific dollar rent cap.

"We now understand that the Office of Management and Budget has raised objections to privately-financed, leased buildings, even for modest project scopes," Bataillon said. The loss of this construction alternative means the Judiciary would need to revisit its courthouse prioritization method. "However, the Judiciary urges the subcommittee to support retaining lease-construction as a legitimate, valuable, and appropriate alternative strategy to federal construction, especially in locales where the court space need is modest, acute, and of possible indeterminate duration."

According to Bataillon, the privately financed projects can be delivered "in a fraction of the time that it takes the government to construct a federal courthouse." The expedited delivery would have benefited a critically needed facility in Yuma, Arizona. GSA had already begun the procurement process of preparing solicitations for offers, when the procurement strategy was changed to the federal-construct path. Bataillon told the subcommittee that, from Judiciary project approval to completed construction, the privately-financed alternative takes approximately three years; the federal construction alternative takes about 10 years.

Read Judge Bataillon's complete testimony at: www.uscourts.gov/Press_Releases/2009/TestimonyOfJudgeJosephBataillon.pdf.

The testimony of GSA's Paul Prouty is available at: http://appropriations.senate.gov/hearings.cfm?s=fsg.