EDITORIAL: The Bare Necessities and Why We Lack Them, Part Four

Read Part One

As the Affordable Housing Workgroup has continued its research into the reasons behind a shortage of affordable housing options in Archuleta County — and into possible solutions to that problem — I’ve come to the realization that the crisis is closely related to, and partly fueled by, other underlying problems in American society. For one thing, we have a growing gap between the wealthiest Americans — who, in many cases, control government decision-making processes — and the mass of impoverished Americans who may lack bare necessities, like a safe place to live, and who have almost no access to local or national decision-makers.

Other underlying problems that affect the housing crisis:

  • A steady increase in the cost of raw land and construction materials, at a time when wages are stagnant.
  • An increase in drug addiction, across the nation, resulting from rampant abuse of (legally prescribed) opioid painkillers and tranquilizers. Drug addicts make notoriously poor tenants, and are even less suitable as home buyer prospects.
  • Automation of industrial and agricultural operations, resulting in the reduction of skilled job positions and leaving us with a workforce competing for menial service industry jobs and low wages.
  • An education system operating on instructional models dating from the 1800s.

I hold little hope that our national leaders will address these underlying problems in any significant way. But I feel positive about local control. Our local leaders, with encouragement from the taxpayers, could alter their priorities and focus on the most pressing needs — the most basic needs — of the people here.

On Tuesday afternoon, at the conclusion of their regular meeting, the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners engaged in a curious conversation, concerning current plans to seek millions of dollars in tax increases to duplicate mostly-empty spaces in the existing County Courthouse, by building a $25 million “justice center” on a County-owned Hot Springs Boulevard parcel.

The discussion between the three commissioners — Michael Whiting, Ronnie Maez and Steve Wadley — centered on three key questions.

None of these key questions were discussed during the meeting earlier that morning, when the BOCC met with representatives of the Colorado Justice Department.

Archuleta County Commissioners and Judicial Department representatives listen to a presentation of sketch drawing of a future ‘justice center’ proposed for Hot Springs Boulevard. February 7, 2017.

The previous BOCC, after two years of “research” and an expenditure of $100,000, settled on possibly the worst location for their proposed new “justice center.” The idea that the taxpayers will happily approve a huge tax increase to fund such a proposal is somewhat doubtful.

Should the BOCC continue along the current trajectory, simply because a previous BOCC chose to head in the wrong direction? That’s the main question. If it’s doubtful that the taxpayers will approve the current plan, then we would be smarter to stop right now, and come up with something that the taxpayers can support?

If the County were able — with taxpayer approval — to put us deeply in debt for a new “justice center,” will that make it impossible to fund more important basic needs … like roads and housing? This question was carefully avoided by the two commissioners who approved the Hot Springs Boulevard “justice center” last year.

Then we have the more political question. If I am a County Commissioner, and I am watching my two fellow commissioners steering the community down a potentially disastrous path, am I required to be a “team player” and support their actions?  The answer to this question, as posed rhetorically by Commissioner Michael Whiting on Tuesday, came from Commissioner Steve Wadley and Ronnie Maez, and from County Attorney Todd Starr — along the lines of:

The decision has already been made by a previous BOCC, and we all need to be team players, Michael. We must present ourselves as a unified team, committed to getting the taxpayers to approve what might be a very expensive idea.

Attorney Todd Starr:

“This is a discussion that you guys have to have, because the reality is, we are wasting public dollars if we’re pursuing a courthouse on Hot Springs Boulevard, and one commissioner is going to adamantly speak out against it. Because it will kill the vote.”

(Why attorney Todd Starr feels the need to weigh in on this question is beyond me. He is supposedly hired to provide legal advice, and this question is a political question, not a legal question.)

Commissioner Whiting argued that, to the contrary, the money spent, thus far, on the “justice center” research was not wasted, but rather provided useful information about facility needs. He called it a “very valuable exercise.”

Commissioner Wadley argued that a Board of County Commissioners should not properly see itself as “three individuals,” but rather as “a body comprised of three people, and sometimes you get your way, and sometimes you don’t.” Commissioner Whiting should, in Commissioner Wadley’s view, get on board and support the decision made by the previous BOCC, no matter how poor that decision may have been.

An interesting argument.

That’s certainly not the way politics works at the national level. The Republican politicians in Washington, for example, have been actively and consistently attacking the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — ever since it passed by a narrow vote in 2010, and now appear poised to overturn that legislation. Other examples are easy to find.

In the case of the proposed “justice center” on Hot Springs Boulevard, Commissioner Whiting has three very cogent reasons to continue opposing the current plan. It violates the deed restriction to which the County agreed, when they bought the parcel in 1999. It is the most expensive, least suitable location of all the locations considered over the past two years. And the necessary tax increase is likely to die a swift death at the polls, if it goes before the voters next November.

Speaking for myself, personally — as a business owner and property owner in Pagosa Springs — I would have no problem approving a tax increase based on a well-formulated plan to address unmet basic needs in our community. I would include, in that definition of “unmet basic needs,” the proper maintenance of our community’s road system. I would include a well-formulated plan to address the housing issue.

We currently have no feasible long-range plan, locally, for addressing these basic needs.

I wish we did. I would be willing to pay good money for such a plan.

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Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.