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O.C. Federal Court Plan Is Put in Jeopardy


WASHINGTON — A brief recommendation buried in the Clinton Administration's plan to streamline the federal government is likely to delay--and could derail--construction of a $168-million federal courthouse in Santa Ana.

As a result of the recommendation, the federal government's housekeeping agency, the General Services Administration, will immediately halt construction and leasing of new federal office buildings, including courthouses, pending a review of cost and need.

The action was called for by the National Performance Review, a six-month study directed by Vice President Al Gore that is intended to help squeeze the waste out of government operations. The study was unveiled this week.

Sources said the GSA review could take up to six months. "Everything is on the table," one GSA official told The Times.

The government has already paid for the planning phase of the Santa Ana project and the design work will continue. But if the GSA review drags on, groundbreaking could be pushed far into next year. And if the review determines that the courthouse is not essential, it could be dropped altogether.

Coincidentally, the new administrator of the GSA is Roger W. Johnson, the Orange County businessman who broke ranks with local Republicans to become an early supporter of Clinton's bid for the presidency. Before taking the government job, Johnson served as chief executive of Western Digital Corp.

In addition to the Santa Ana project, the Administration's move will affect a $162-million federal court building planned for Sacramento, which already has one federal court facility.

While some Republican lawmakers joined Democrats in backing aspects of the streamlining plan, Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), who has pushed hard for the Santa Ana courthouse, said a lengthy moratorium is a bad idea.

"It is outrageous for the GSA to delay by an additional one-half year our Orange County courthouse," Cox said.

"If they have different quarters in mind, then I'd like to see their recommendation forthwith. Temporizing, hand-wringing and hanky-twisting is going to cost taxpayers more money in the end."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), whose seat Cox is likely to seek next year, also criticized the GSA's action.

"It would be ludicrous to now halt a project that would serve such a large region," Feinstein said. "Reducing the federal bureaucracy is laudable, but ignoring the federal government's responsibility to provide courthouses in underserved areas is foolish and unwise."

The moratorium is not the only obstacle the courthouse faces. The groundbreaking schedule for the Santa Ana project, to be named after former President Ronald Reagan, was put in doubt earlier this year when House and Senate construction appropriations came up short.

The House set aside $148 million--$20 million short of the estimated cost--to construct the courthouse and office building on 3.9 acres of city-owned land in the Santa Ana Civic Center.

In a separate action, the Senate voted to spend $103 million on the project. Feinstein, who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said her colleagues on the committee vowed to provide the balance of the needed funds next year.

The differing figures are to be reconciled in a House-Senate conference committee. Last year, Congress appropriated $6.4 million for design, and the GSA awarded a design contract last spring.

Orange County has no permanent federal courthouse, although a handful of judges sit in temporary, 30,000-square-foot quarters in the Civic Center. Cox and other lawmakers have argued that the Los Angeles courthouse, where many Orange County cases are referred, is choked with litigation and too far away.

On Page 98 of the Clinton Administration's 168-page plan to "reinvent government" is a three-paragraph recommendation that calls on the GSA to re-evaluate the need for new courthouses and to reduce the total cost of federal courthouse construction, which can top $200 a square foot.

A top GSA official said Thursday that the agency, which builds, maintains and leases federal office buildings and courthouses, intends to follow the recommendation.

"We ought to take a look at what we're doing to make sure we're doing the right thing," said Deputy GSA Administrator Julia Stasch.

Stasch's boss, GSA Administrator Johnson, said during confirmation hearings earlier this year that he intended to take a close look at the cost of new courthouse construction.

"What this really does is let us implement (Johnson's plan for a court cost analysis) in the context of the National Performance Review, as a sort of 'time-out,' " Stasch said.

The action was strongly supported by Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat who for years has complained about the ever-increasing demand by the federal judiciary for courthouse space, and the cost of providing it.

"The cost of building an average 20-story office building is about $90 a foot," Dorgan said. "The average hospital is about $90 a foot. The fact is, the cost some of these federal building projects is way out of line, and it's time to give them a real hard look."

Despite Dorgan's backing, Johnson is certain to face substantial pressure from Orange County's congressional delegation to get the Santa Ana project back on track.

"Now comes the payoff" of having Johnson as GSA administrator, said Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), whose district includes the courthouse site. "Let's have Roger step in and in this case say, 'Orange County people should no longer be forced to drive up to Los Angeles to meet their court needs.'

"This is reaching an emergency status to build this courthouse," Dornan said. "This is not what we mean by reinventing government."

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