EDITORIAL: Dreaming of a Reasonable Jail Proposal

The justice center will include a courthouse, a jail and the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office. But, as has been previously reported, the choice of Hot Springs Boulevard as a site for those functions presents legal problems.

— March 9, 2017, article by reporter Jim Garrett in the Pagosa Springs SUN regarding a proposed but as-yet-unfunded Archuleta County facility.

I enjoyed Jim Garrett’s brief article about the Willingham Property Proposal in this week’s SUN — the latest twist in a rather twisted saga about a proposed “justice center.” Mr. Garrett has been covering the machinations and maneuverings of the Board of County Commissioners for only a few weeks now, since taking over the County beat from SUN reporter Marshall Dunham — who, in turn, took over the Town Council beat from Mr. Garrett.

Our Daily Post readers — a generally intelligent group — are no doubt well aware that you can’t believe everything you read in the paper. Or on a news website, for that matter. But based on my own research into the Willingham story, I would suggest that Mr. Garrett’s SUN article is reasonably accurate.

I have only one small beef with his March 9 article. More about that in a moment.

Map of a 22-acre parcel atop Putt Hill, provided to the Board of County Commissioners by property owner Jim Willingham on March 7, 2017. The property is indicated by a red outline.

As noted in Mr. Garrett’s article, the BOCC — commissioners Steve Wadley, Michael Whiting and Ronnie Maez — had something of a yoke strapped to their shoulders last September, when then-commissioner Clifford Lucero pushed through a decision… to spend as much as $25 million (that the County does not have) on a new County building that would include a courthouse, jail and Sheriff’s offices… on County-owned vacant land on Hot Springs Boulevard.

Maybe as much as $29 million? And that still doesn’t include the interest payments on the loan.

Meanwhile, the consulting architects hired by the BOCC have made it clear that the Hot Springs Boulevard parcel is a generally poor choice for the proposed building, due to terrain issues and the small size of the parcel. The BOCC is also facing a possible lawsuit if they attempt to move forward with construction of a jail on that particular parcel, due to a deed restriction, agreed to by the County in 1999 when the parcel was purchased from the Fairway Land Trust — an agreement not to place a jail on the property.

However, the BOCC applied for — and was awarded — a state grant to help fund continued planning for that (inappropriate?) site on Hot Springs Boulevard. The money spent on that planning process, to date, is well in excess of $100,000 — and that doesn’t even include the legal fees that have been incurred so far.

Last month, the Levine family — owners of the Fairway Land Trust — presented the BOCC with an alternative site for the “justice center,” on property owned by the Trust along Highway 84, near the County Road and Bridge complex. The three commissioners subsequently expressed an interest in researching that option.

At this past Tuesday’s BOCC work session, property owner Jim Willingham — the owner of a 22-acre parcel at the top of Putt Hill, just east of Harman Park — told the commissioners that he would donate a portion of that parcel as a site for the proposed “justice center.” He told the commissioners that the presence of a county facility on his parcel would increase the value of the adjacent property.

Here’s a map showing the location of the Willingham property, in yellow.  It’s located within the Town boundaries.

The commissioners indicated an interest in touring the site — perhaps a few weeks from now, once the snow has melted? Commissioner Wadley also stated that the consulting architects have been instructed to stop work on the Hot Springs Boulevard plans, at least for the time being.

I believe those are the facts, although maybe I tossed a bit of opinion into the mix.

So let’s look at the “facts” which are not actually “facts.”  Here’s the quote from Mr. Garrett’s SUN article that kicked off today’s editorial:

The justice center will include a courthouse, a jail and the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office. But, as has been previously reported, the choice of Hot Springs Boulevard as a site for those functions presents legal problems.

Seems innocent enough. The working drawings created, thus far, by the consulting architects have indeed depicted facilities that contain a courthouse, a jail and the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office, and these sketches have purportedly represented a “justice center.”

But if we want to be completely accurate — and we do, don’t we? — we can’t write that “The justice center WILL include.. blah blah blah.” Because, in fact, the County doesn’t actually have the money to build more than maybe a jail and Sheriff’s Office.

No reasonable person would propose that the taxpayers of Archuleta County WILL happily approve a tax increase to build a complete $25 million “justice center” — including a brand new courthouse — when we have a reasonably functional Courthouse already… and when much of our community’s infrastructure is in dismal condition… and when working class families can’t find housing.

What we don’t have, at the moment, is a jail. We could probably build a serviceable Sheriff’s Office and jail for $6 million, if we indeed had a donation of buildable land… unencumbered by deed restrictions. That’s one-quarter the cost of the proposed facility on Hot Springs Boulevard.

Then the currently-abandoned spaces in the downtown Courthouse could be remodeled into serviceable court facilities… for maybe $2 million?  The vacant parcel adjoining the current courthouse could be purchased to allow for future expansion; recent negotiations suggest a sale price of maybe $600,000. We might even see interest from the Town government in building a parking garage on the vacant parcel, to support the revitalization of the old downtown… perhaps a structure that could later accommodate office spaces on the second floor.

The whole deal might cost less than $10 million — thus saving the taxpayers up to $19 million (not including the interest payments on the loan.)

When I spoke about these ideas yesterday, with County Commissioner Ronnie Maez, he provided the following statement about the Willingham proposal:

“I think it’s our responsibility and our due diligence to look at any proposal that is brought to the Board of County Commissioners, and we need to look at all options. As long as it does not slow down the process, of establishing our justice center.”

I understand the concern about “slowing down the process.”  The rejection of a tax increase, by the voters, to pay for an overpriced $25 million facility on Hot Springs Boulevard would certainly slow down the process.  So would the litigation that would arise from pursuing that option.

A smaller, more reasonable, more affordable option… that doesn’t include brand new court facilities? Might be able to break ground this summer?

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.