Colorado’s new Judicial Center misses the mark, state auditor finds

A sprawling new courthouse and judicial center opening this month in downtown Denver to bring the state attorney general, the supreme court and the appellate courts under one roof cost more than advertised and won’t save nearly as much in efficiencies as originally thought.

The $283 million Ralph L. Carr Judicial Center was sold to lawmakers as necessary to reduce overhead and cut down on redundancies from having the Judicial Branch spread out around the city. State judicial staff promised $60 million in savings over 30 years.

But an evaluation by the Colorado Office of the State Auditor found that there was no basis for the anticipated savings and judicial staffers couldn’t produce any documentation to back up the figure.

The revised estimate has been significantly downgraded: Having the judicial branch in one building is now estimated to save $20 million in day-to-day expenses over 30 years.

“We found that the Judicial Department was able to give some very high numbers” in estimated cost savings when pitching the new building in 2008, said Acting Deputy State Auditor Michelle Colin. “But they were not able to provide us with anything to really substantiate how they came up with that $60 million and what was the basis of that.”

The department originally estimated that the new building would save $15 million in rent over 30 years; the revised numbers now show they’ll save only a tenth of that amount over the same period, $1.5 million. Likewise, projected savings for staff and operational costs were originally estimated to be $30 million. Now it’s $3.5 million.

Total first-year savings on rent, utilities, staff and operations were originally estimated to be $4.3 million. The new estimate is a mere $477,983.

“The expectation that cost savings would occur through consolidating and reducing the operational costs of Judicial Branch agencies and the Attorney General’s Office was a major justification for approving construction of the Judicial Center,” according to the report.

The original plan also didn’t include the cost of renovating and backfilling the Attorney General’s old office space, which will be used by other state agencies. That’s estimated to cost $3 million.

“We saw some things that we felt should have been considered and we felt like you would have expected to see more detail on how they derived some of those numbers,” Colin daid. “If they had included all of the additional costs and such, it would have been a more complete estimate.”

Colin noted that tenants in the new building will be paying less per-square-foot in rent than originally estimated, which could offset some of the cost-saving reductions over time.

The review of the building’s construction was part of an overall performance evaluation of the state’s capital asset management done by Deloitte on behalf of the state auditor. The Judicial Center was one of four projects that were evaluated.