2012-06-28 / Community
East County Courthouse will remain open, for now
Government officials craft plan to delay closure
But due to the efforts of city, county and court officials, the slated-to-be-closed Simi Valley courthouse has received a reprieve, allowing time to finalize a multi-agency funding agreement that would keep a courtroom open part-time for two years.
“We decided to advance the money to keep it open under the assumption that we are going to get good news from around the county that we are going to get the money to reimburse us,” said Ventura Superior Court Presiding Judge Vincent O’Neill, part of the team working to keep the courthouse operating in some capacity.
O’Neill is hopeful a funding agreement will be reached soon. At this point there is no drop-dead date for when the courthouse may close if the plan falls through.
But the desire to preserve access to justice countywide is propelling stakeholders forward in the move to save the courthouse.
“We think it’s important in a symbolic way that there be some kind of courthouse door to walk through, even part-time, in the East County,” said O’Neill, a Ventura County judge for 20 years. “So much of the county economy is generated from the east end and so much of the population is there.”
The Ventura Superior Court’s need to suspend services at the East County Courthouse and transfer them to the Hall of Justice in Ventura stems from continued reductions in state funding for the California court system.
According to Court Executive Officer Michael Planet, the Ventura Superior Court is facing a $10.5-million deficit for the fiscal year beginning July 2012 and that shortfall could increase to $12.7 million if the governor’s proposed tax initiatives are not approved in November.
To address the growing defi- cit, the court must reduce costs, and one way is by shifting to Ventura the family law, small claims, landlord-tenant disputes and criminal/traffic cases heard in Simi.
These East County operations were scheduled to end June 25.
But the April announcement of the closure sparked outcry from city and law enforcement officials.
They recognized that shuttering the courthouse would force East County residents to drive farther for court services and put more cars on the road, cost law enforcement agencies more overtime hours and take on-duty officers off the streets, and create longer wait times and increased congestion at the Ventura courthouse from the transfer of 17,000-plus cases that were heard in Simi.
In light of these impacts and others, the interested parties banded together to find a solution.
As it stands, the East County Courthouse now has one courtroom open two days a week, Monday and Tuesday, to hear traffic infractions, small claims, landlord-tenant disputes and some types of temporary restraining orders. Family law is gone, even with the reprieve.
To help reduce congestion at the Hall of Justice, any court document can be filed in Simi on the two days the courthouse is open, even for cases heard in Ventura. Traffic and collection payments can still be made five days a week at the Alamo Street facility.
In working with the courts, county staff was able to reduce the overhead costs of the Simi courthouse by $170,000 for next fiscal year.
Despite these savings, keeping the courthouse running two days a week will cost $275,000 a year to pay for the presiding commissioner and support staff.
To cover this shortfall, each city and the county would chip in to pay for continued court services in Simi.
“We have a truly creative solution that would not fly in many counties,” O’Neill said.
On Tuesday, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to participate in the plan, kicking in $100,000 from its general fund contingency—$50,000 per year for two years—to help keep the courthouse open.
“It’s concerning to step into what is a state obligation,” said Supervisor Kathy Long, who represents Camarillo, “but that is offset by the public benefit of keeping this facility operating, as minimally as it will be operating, to make sure that we serve the east end of the county . . . and not have (court) resources already spread thin spread even thinner.”
The plan calls for contributions from the cities, too.
Since Simi Valley would experience the greatest impacts from the closure, it would give the most and has committed to providing $75,000 each year for two years.
Moorpark has pledged $25,000.
Thousand Oaks is considering a request for $65,000. Camarillo has been asked to contribute $15,000, Oxnard $30,000 and Ventura $15,000.
“We’re hopeful that they will participate,” said Simi Valley City Manager Mike Sedell, who has been in talks with the other city managers in the county. “We are confident, with everybody’s participation, that we can make this plan work.”
O’Neill said agencies were asked for a two-year monetary commitment since the state budget will likely not be in a better position a year from now.
But knowing that the cities and county can’t afford and shouldn’t have to supply funds for court services thereafter, the Superior Court plans to make a case to receive a larger share of state funds in the future.
The judge said the pitch won’t be easy, but it’s worth a shot.
“Our situation is a little bit different than a lot of counties in the sense that we are big enough that we should have two locations but we never truly have been fully funded for that,” O’Neill said.
Sedell said it’s about getting a “fair share,” and 1.7 percent of the state trial court funding budget isn’t fair.
“It doesn’t give us enough money for our residents to have a judicial system that serves them,” Sedell said. “Ventura County has the largest population per courthouse of any county in the state, and that needs to be remedied.”