Those Tight-Fisted, Flinty-Eyed Guardians of the Public Fisc Are at it Again

          If this headline sounds sarcastic, it is meant to be. When you practice eminent domain law in California, you get accustomed to condemnors lamenting in court that — gee, golly, Your Honor — if you let those crafty condemnees recover just compensation for all their demonstrable, incontestably suffered economic losses, the civilized world as we know it, will surely come to an end. The California Supreme Court once took the position — and never retreated from it — that it is its duty to keep condemnation awards down, because otherwise an “embargo” on public projects will have to be declared, don’t you know. Unfortunately, we see this sort of government frugality only when it comes to paying just compensation to condemnees, not when it comes to wasting public funds on misbegotten projects that never see the light of day.

         Case in point, a little squib, artfully hidden on page A8 of the Los Angels Times of November 19, 2009. It reports that the city of Placentia in Orange County has settled its controversy with the California DOT (affectionately known hereabouts as CalTrans), whereby the city will pony up $5.5 million to settle a $36-million claim by CalTrans, being as the city — according to the Los Angeles Times — misspent the latter amount in state funds to finance a now-defunct rail corridor project. A local small city trying to build a railroad? Yep.

          According to the Times, the proposed $650-million OnTrac project “was shelved in 2006 after failing to receive federal funding.” Its design included “sinking five miles of railroad tracks into a concrete trench,” that “dragged the city deep into debt and forced officials to cut services and sell parkland to recoup the losses.”

         The grabber in this story is that the city will have to borrow money to pay CalTrans, but — not to worry, folks — eventually the city will repay the money lent to it by the Orange County Transportation Authority, from the city’s share of funds generated by “Measure M,” authorizing a countywide sales tax to fund transportation projects, as well as state highway funds.

           So transportation funds that should be used in part to compensate people whose property is taken for public transportation, will go to pay for the city’s fiasco. No fear of an “embargo” here.

Follow up. We evidently missed this gem on first reading, but the Los Angeles Times also explains that the city feels it was victimized by CalTrans because CalTrans did not stop it from spending all that money. No, we are not making this up. Here is what the L.A. Times reports:

“City officials contended that Caltrans was at least partly to blame because it approved work orders, disbursed state money to the city and neglected its oversight responsibilities. They suggested that the city was more victim than perpetrator.”

          Bottom line: assuming a modicum of skill and integrity in CalTrans’ estimate of what the city owed it, good ol’ CalTrans left some $30.5 million of your money on the table.

          Don’t you just love it?