EDITORIAL: Get Out of Jail, Free… Part One

According to Wikipedia, the popular parlor game known as ‘Monopoly’ is based on a politically-motivated game created in 1903 by American anti-monopolist Elizabeth Phillips. Phillips designed the game — originally called ‘The Landlord’s Game’ — as an educational tool to illustrate the negative aspects of concentrating land in private monopolies, and the positive aspects of the taxing theories of political writer Henry George. George’s enormously popular book, Progress and Poverty, was published in 1879 as an attempt to explain why — in the midst of steadily increasing national wealth — so many Americans lived in dire poverty.

A series of variant board games based on her concept appeared over the next couple of decades, involving the buying and selling of land… and the development of that land. Cardboard houses were added… and rents were allowed to increase as they were added.

A variation on ‘The Landlord’s Game’ — called ‘Monopoly’ — was the basis of the board game sold by Parker Brothers beginning in 1935.

That is to say: during the Great Depression. It’s easy to tell that the game was created during a different era of American history, because the wealthy investors buying up the community’s land were still paying a ‘Luxury Tax’ and could occasionally land in jail, at least temporarily.

So, speaking of jails… and increasing rents…

At the Archuleta County Commissioners work session on May 2, we heard County Administrator Bentley Henderson speak briefly about the substantial government debt that will presumably be created by the construction of a new jail in Archuleta County.

The discussion began with the assumption that such a jail would be constructed on a donated parcel in the Harman Park subdivision, near the intersection of Highway 160 and Piedra Road — and that the three County commissioners would place a bond measure before the voters, on this coming November’s ballot.

Mr. Henderson:

“I exchanged emails with [architect] Brad Ash yesterday, and they would like to do their first presentation of the program planning for the Harman Park site. They want to do it on May 31. It’s a Wednesday. We don’t have anything else planned for that date.”

Commissioner Michael Whiting:

“We should give them a couple of hours, for sure.”

Mr. Henderson:

“Yeah, we should give them as much time as they need. They plan on having quite a bit of information together, to include some really good preliminary cost estimates. So that will allow us to start coalescing our conversation around how much we’re going to need, to fund what it is we want to do.”

Mr. Henderson did not explain exactly who he meant when he used the word, “We.”

I took him to mean, “We, the BOCC and its support staff.”

But he could have meant, “We, the People of Archuleta County.”

Daily Post readers who’ve been following this two-year process — the abandonment of the existing County jail following a roof leak, the sometimes contentious, sometimes amiable negotiations with the Colorado Judicial Department about expanded courtroom facilities, the decision by commissioners Steve Wadley and Clifford Lucero to designate a deed-restricted, County-owned parcel on Hot Springs Boulevard as the best location for a new $28 million facility, the abrupt change of direction following the election of Ronnie Maez to fill Mr. Lucero’s seat on the BOCC and the offer of a land donation from the Fred Harman Art Museum — have no doubt formed some opinions about the process and the likely outcome of a potential bond election in November.

In the state of Colorado, a county government cannot legally create new public debt without getting voter approval. How much debt are ‘we’ thinking here?

Are ‘we’ all on the same page?

I’ve written here in the Daily Post, on a few occasions, about the process that Clarissa and I went through, when purchasing a house in Pagosa Springs back in 1994.

That was an entirely different process from the way we obtained our first house, up in Juneau, Alaska in 1977. That first house was basically gifted to us by Clarissa’s parents, following the birth of our first child. The foundation of the house was failing, and it was going to require a significant investment to preserve the house as a livable dwelling. But the federal government had designated downtown Juneau as qualifying for urban renewal funding through Jimmy Carter’s Model Cities program. Only trick was, you could qualify for a federally-subsidized loan if you owned the house you were repairing. We had been renting the house from Clarissa’s parent, but when the new grandchild arrived, her parents signed the house over to us and we borrowed $50,000 from Uncle Sam to fix the foundation and remodel the house.

Probably a good investment, on the part of the federal government, during a time when preserving low-income housing was a higher priority than fighting wars on the other side of the globe. The other option was to allow it to deteriorate and finally disappear, as so many other low-income houses did in that neighborhood.

Clarissa and I sold the Alaska house in 1994 and began shopping for a house in Pagosa Springs. We knew how much money we had, and what we could afford, and were fortunate to get a good deal on an old Victorian with three small bedrooms and one bathroom.

It seemed like a mansion to us, after living with our three kids in that tiny, 800-square-foot house in Alaska. It was something we could afford.

Where am I going with this? Well, the Archuleta County government has recently come to the conclusion that their facility expansion plans should take a two-pronged approach. First, they’re considering the idea of remodeling the abandoned jail in the heart of downtown to create more facility space for the Judicial Department, and second, building a brand new jail and Sheriff’s office on the Harman Park property that’s been offered, uptown.

Do you buy what you can afford? Or do you decide on something you can’t afford, and go running to the taxpayers, begging for more money?

The BOCC has been carefully stashing money away for the past five years or so, by cutting back on their spending — as you might guess, judging by the condition of our local roads — and they might be able to afford to pay for one of these two expansion projects without creating any debt.

But they really want to create some debt, it seems.

Read Part Two…

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.