EDITORIAL: If You Build It, They Will Pay… Part Six

Read Part One

Raising their two children in California on my father’s teacher salary, my parents lived rather frugally. They never had a swimming pool in the back yard, for instance, although we knew a few people who did have one.

One day, I heard an adult offer a piece of advice, during a friendly conversation about backyard swimming pools.

“If you need to ask how much it costs to maintain a swimming pool… you can’t afford a swimming pool.”

For some reason, that simple but clever phrasing has stuck in my mind for the past half-century, and this morning, as I write about the two key costs of government infrastructure — initial construction, and ongoing maintenance — it might reflect an important concept, as we look at the slowly deteriorating government buildings and roads in Archuleta County.

Without too much effort, we could re-phrase it like this:

“If you need to ask how much it costs to maintain asphalt paving… you can’t afford asphalt paving.”

Yesterday, Tuesday April 18, the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners approved a real estate contract that would transfer almost five acres of property in Harman Park, near the Piedra Road intersection, into the hands of the County government, as the location for a new government facility. What that facility would include, how big it would be, and what it would cost to build — and maintain — are still undefined numbers. We only know that the BOCC is currently talking about a facility they cannot afford without putting local taxpayers millions of dollars in debt.

The five-acre parcel is being donated by the Fred Harman Art Museum Inc. with the stipulation that the new facility be named after Fred Harman III, and that space be allocated — either in the new facility, or in the downtown Courthouse when (or if) it gets remodeled — for the care and display of artwork and collectables that currently displayed at the Art Museum, which would thus (I assume) be closing its own doors to the public.

The contract stipulates that the County can wait to accept the property until after the November election. The thought is, that the BOCC will place a multi-million-dollar tax increase in the ballot this coming November, to help fund the new facility, and if the voters turn down the tax increase… well, maybe there’s a Plan B.

In Colorado, a county government cannot easily incur millions of dollars of debt without voter approval. It can be done, but it’s not easy — nor is it popular with the voters.

The proposed facility had been discussed earlier in the day, on Tuesday morning at the BOCC work session, when local resident Kelly Dunn sat down at the table, representing the Pagosa Bible Church in Harman Park. The church is next door to the parcel proposed for the new County jail and Sheriff’s administration offices.

Mr. Dunn:

“We’re here to work with you, make it all work for both of us… There was a lot of conversation [among the congregation members]… ‘Well, we don’t want a jail that close to the church.’ But on the flip side, they said, ‘Well, that’s our ministry.’”

Pagosa Bible Church representative Kelly Dunn, center, in the blue shirt, discusses the proposed County facilities in Harman Park at the April 18, 2017, BOCC work session.

Mr, Dunn talked about the church’s expansion plans, and County administrator Bentley Henderson noted that the new parking lot that would be constructed for any future County facility would likely be available — and empty — on Sundays, for use by the church.

The conversation also touched on the idea that the Harman Park subdivision has its own property owners association, and that the County would be required to adhere to the association’s design guidelines, regarding exterior design and treatment, and perhaps landscaping.

At the conclusion of that morning work session, there were only about five people left in the audience, but Commission Chair Steve Wadley wanted to open up the floor to questions about the proposed new facility. Local curmudgeon Jim Sawicki — wearing a “Trump Won, Liberals Lost” T-shirt — took the opportunity to pose the question that has remained safely unanswered for the past two years:

“What’s this facility going to cost?”

Commissioner Michael Whiting:

“That’s up to [the BOCC.] We can set a budget. We can say, for instance, that the cost will not exceed $10 million… What we do know, from our consultants, and we’ve heard this over and over for the last 18 months, that the jail component — build for current need, and expandable for future need — is somewhere between $6 million and $8 million.”

We’ll hear more of this discussion in a moment, but before we simply accept the fact that a jail for Archuleta County would cost maybe $8 million, we might ponder that estimate… rather than simply accepting it as a “fact.”

It’s my understanding that the County Sheriff currently has an average of 13 to 15 inmates in custody, on any given day — housed mainly in Durango at the La Plata County jail, following the abandoning of our own jail two years ago following a roof leak. We also heard, from the architect consultants hired by the BOCC, that our abandoned jail could probably be renovated into a “state of the art jail” for less than $3 million.

I live with my daughter and her husband, and their two children, in a 100-year-old house in downtown Pagosa. The house was recently appraised at $150,000. It would probably cost $300,000 to build a new home with the same square footage.

I understand that a jail built to house 15 inmates — or even 30, on a bad day — will be much more expensive that a dwelling able accommodate 5 family members and their home businesses. Yes, a jail requires strong cinderblock walls, and secure doors that lock, and a video surveillance system, and an exercise room, and probably other stuff I haven’t thought of.

But does it really need to cost 25 times as much as a spacious new home that can accommodate 5 people? Which is to say, with $8 million, I could construct 25 nice new homes in Pagosa, able to accommodate a total of maybe 125 people?

And lest we forget — a building that costs 25 times as much to build will likely cost 25 times as much to maintain.

This pesky issue — maintenance — is rarely part of government conversations, when new infrastructure is being proposed. But it’s exactly the problem we are now facing with our paved County roads. Yes, pavement is a lovely thing, when it’s new. But the County Engineer last week told the BOCC that the reconstruction of the pavement on Backswing and East Golf Place — less than a mile of subdivision road — is going to cost in the neighborhood of $1.1 million.

If those two roads were unpaved, they could be given new gravel every other year, for 67 years, for the same cost.

Maintenance — and lack thereof — is also part of the issue, where the County jail is concerned. According to reports, the roof of the (now abandoned) County jail has been leaking since the late 1980s, and it was in the midst of a re-roofing project that the jail experienced a flooding event two years ago.

So let’s get back to the conversation between Mr. Sawicki and Commissioner Whiting. Mr. Sawicki has just assured the commissioners that, if they believed the voters were going to approve new County facilities costing $20 million, they are “naïve fools.”

“The Sheriff needs a jail,” he continued. “But you could start a jail now, and have it done before the snow flies. We need that. But the rest of this facility can wait until you have more money. You’ve got enough to build a jail, now. But not this big, magnificent complex. You’re naïve if you think that’s going to fly with the voting taxpayers.”

Commissioner Whiting countered that the County does not, currently, have enough money to build a jail, now.

“But that’s the beauty of our system,” he continued. “We [the BOCC] don’t have the power to increase taxes. Only you [the taxpayers] can raise your own taxes. If we’re going to the voters, we better go with something that we think can succeed.”

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.