Saturday, March 12, 2011

How often do people get away with cheating at the San Diego courthouse? Even the contractors who fix the court toilets are under suspicion

Court repair costs cluster just under limit
High number of jobs come in just under authorization threshold of $500


Saturday, February 26, 2011 at 6:55 p.m.
Court lightbulb changed under contract

Court cost to fix a squeaky door? $460.35
Court lightbulb changed under contract

A balky toilet in a basement restroom in the downtown courthouse, blinking lightbulbs in a South Bay courtroom, a runny faucet in the El Cajon courthouse.

Those three routine repair requests from local courthouses were all made over a five-day period in June. Because they were all pegged to cost less than $500, the repair work was automatically authorized by the Administrative Office of the Courts, the state agency in charge of courthouse maintenance.

The cost for each of the repairs looked like this:

•Toilet: $487.37

•Lights: $462.60


They were not the only examples of routinely approved repair work that ended up just under $500.

The Watchdog reviewed $1.6 million in billings for about 3,450 maintenance work orders for the San Diego courts in the first eight months of 2010. The data showed that by far the largest number of billings, 981 jobs or 28 percent of the total, fell between $400 and $500.

The bunching is an indication of how the court system, and taxpayer dollars, have been poorly managed, said San Diego Superior Court Judge Dan Goldstein He is a director of a group of judges around the state who have been critical of court management and pressed for reforms over the past year.

“We have a lack of oversight and costs controls and a lack of accountability at the state level, at a time when most agencies are being required to take cuts, including us,” he said.

Under the terms of the contract the courts agency inked in 2006 with a newly-formed subsidiary of the Fortune 500 company Jacobs Engineering Group of Pasadena, maintenance jobs up to $500 are approved with no initial oversight, although they are reviewed later.

A spokeswoman for Jacobs, which is based in Pasadena, did not respond to requests for comment on the findings by The Watchdog.

The provision pre-authorizing work under $500 is intended to speed along minor repairs, and not require courts or the workers to get clearance first. Philip Carrizosa, a spokesman for the court agency, said the bills are scrutinized by agency officials when submitted and “in many instances” the full amount billed is not paid.

“So the $500 threshold is not a loophole that allows the maintenance contractor to bill whatever it wants below $500. All bills are scrutinized and reviewed,” he wrote in an e-mail.

The average off all the work orders examined by The Watchdog was $467. Carrizosa noted the average of the ones under $500 was $290.

Still, the agency is considering a change in the future. He said a new maintenance contract now up for bid calls for all work under $2,000 to be done under a firm fixed price for each task, not on a job-by-job basis as is done now.

Jacobs is one of a dozen companies in the running for the new maintenance contract, which would go into effect later this year.

Courthouse maintenance costs were the subject of a hearing in the state legislature last year and have become a rallying point for critics of the court system management. A previous story by The Watchdog and media partner 10News highlighted how routine repair tasks, such as fixing squeaking doors or replacing light bulbs, frequently cost hundreds of dollars.

Kris Vosburgh, the executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said he was not surprised what the data showed.

“This is something that goes on at every level of government,” he said. “They use this fly just under the radar to run up millions of dollars. It’s a common problem and I can’t offer a solution other than more frequent auditing.”