EDITORIAL: Get Out of Jail, Free… Part Two

Read Part One

The 1998-99 school year was the first time in many years that the students were attending school, and the faculty was teaching, in uncrowded classrooms and sufficient facilities.

— From an editorial by David C. Mitchell in the Pagosa Springs SUN, May 11, 2000

As mentioned in Part One, on Friday, the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners have expressed their intentions about building some kind of County facility on a donated 5-acre parcel in Harman Park, near the intersection of Highway 160 and Piedra Road. It would seem, to the casual observer, that their intention is to ask Archuleta County voters to approve millions of dollars of new County debt in order to fund this new facility, and it would seem, at the moment, that the cost of the new facility would be somewhere in the range of $10 to $20 million.

The last time the Archuleta County taxpayers approved a bond issue that large was in 1996, when they passed the bond measure for the new Pagosa Springs High School. As I recall, the school district had made two previous, failed attempts to get that bond measure passed, but in 1996, the local economy was looking exceptionally bright to many people. Pagosa Springs had come out of the serious economic downturn, during the 1980s, that had resulted at least partly from depressed oil and gas prices in Texas. (Yes, the Texas economy has long had a major influence on the the Pagosa economy, as much as we hate to admit it.) By 1996, the construction and real estate industries in Archuleta County were beginning to thrive, and the school district was able to make the case that our school buildings were becoming overcrowded.

The $12 million High School bond issue was promoted by a very active campaign committee, and was successful (after two failed attempts) because the 1996 plan included Pagosa’s first “public auditorium” — an amenity that the school district promised would be available to the entire community at a reasonable rental cost. The building was designed to accommodate up to 600 students, as I recall. The pupil count at the high school this year is about 417.

$12 million didn’t give us the most ornate high school in Colorado; in fact, the auditorium was eventually built without dressing rooms and other important elements typically included in a fully functional facility. But, hey, it was better than nothing.

Recent discussions at the Board of County Commissioner meetings reveal some disagreement between the three commissioners, on the best way to approach the voters with a proposed multi-million-dollar tax increase.

Commissioner Steve Wadley seems to favor the “money is no object” approach, based on the idea that the proposed jail and Sheriff’s office is meant to last for at least the next 30 years, and should therefore provide all the space and amenities desired by the Sheriff and his staff — all the space and amenities you might expect to find in any modern Big City jail, for example — even if the price is a bit on the high side.

The taxpayers wouldn’t want to pinch pennies on a new facility… right?

Commissioner Michael Whiting seems to favor a slightly different approach, based on first finding out “how much the voters would be willing to approve” — or at least making a rough guess at how much the voters can stomach — and then constructing a facility within that budget. Such an approach would seemingly require considerable research into the public’s current inclinations.

Commissioner Ronnie Maez hasn’t been on the BOCC long enough for me to form an impression about his approach to the jail issue, except to know that he’s supportive of spending money on a new jail, and that he approves of the proposed Harman Park location.

So here we have one of the central questions. Do you first decide how big a house you need, and then look for the money to pay for it… or do you calculate the amount of money you have, and then look for a house that fits your budget?

After two years of discussion and research, neither of these two possible approaches have been fully addressed. The BOCC does not yet know what size facility is truly needed. And the BOCC still has no idea what size tax increase the voters might approve.

On May 31, the architect consultants will be presenting the first sketches of a possible jail and office facility at the Harman Park site. We’ve seen several such sketches over the past year or so, for the (no longer considered) 5-acre site on Hot Springs Boulevard, and for the (no longer considered) 3-acre site of the existing Parelli Building, and for the existing half-acre Courthouse location (… if it could be expanded onto the one-acre vacant lot next door.)

This preliminary presentation on May 31 could be part of the “design it first, and then look for the money” approach. It could also be the first step in the “decide how much money you can get from the taxpayers, and then refine your building to fit the budget.”

Tomorrow, I’d like to consider the current state of the County Sheriff’s operations — and also, to consider the massive changes our American justice system has undergone over the past 50 years.

From Wikipedia:

‘Law and order’ became a powerful conservative theme in the U.S. in the 1960s. The leading proponents in the late 1960s were Republicans Ronald Reagan (as governor of California) and Richard Nixon (as presidential candidate in 1968)..

After Reagan took office in 1981 and started appointing tough conservative judges, the law became a weapon against crime. The number of prisoners tripled from 500,000 in 1980 to 1.5 million in 1994. Conservatives at the state level built many more prisons and convicts served much longer terms, with less parole.

According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), 2.2 million adults were incarcerated in U.S. federal and state prisons, and county jails in 2013 – nearly 1% of all the adults in the U.S.

Additionally, 4,751,400 adults — about 2 percent of the population — were on probation or on parole.

How much is this costing us?

From a press release posted on a website maintained by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), March 2015:

“Though only 5 percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, it is home to 25 percent of the world’s prison population. … Not only does the current overpopulated, underfunded system hurt those incarcerated, it also digs deeper into the pockets of taxpaying Americans.”

Read Part Three…

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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.