EDITORIAL: A House Subdivided Against Itself, Part Eight
At the Tuesday, August 15 Board of County Commissioners meeting — when two of the three commissioners voted to place a $27 million tax increase before the voters this coming November — the audience was made up of mainly County employees, including a fair number of Sheriff’s Office employees. This was probably appropriate, considering that it seemed the $27 million would be spent exclusively on the Sheriff and his employees, and his future inmates in the County jail.
But a few members of the public had also come to the meeting, to ask questions about the proposed tax increase.
The questions focused on four general concepts.
1. Was the public unwisely and unnecessarily excluded from the planning process over the past 30 months?
2. Are the proposed Sheriff’s facilities oversized for our community, rather than designed for future expansion as needed?
3. Was the choice of using a sales tax increase the right choice for this community, or should the proposed project have been funded — if approved — through a General Obligation Bond, as suggested by the Pagosa Springs Town Council?
4. What loopholes are written into the actual ballot language, that might cause the taxpayers grief in the future?
The question of oversizing was addressed rather thoroughly by local businessman J.R. Ford. As we mentioned yesterday in Part Seven, Mr. Ford was instrumental in arranging the donation of 5 acres in Harman Park as a site for future County facilities. Mr. Ford had also served on the Citizen Task Force that was convened two years ago to research facility options and give advice to the BOCC, and then suddenly disbanded by the BOCC after only two work sessions — apparently, as a result of offering advice that displeased certain commissioners?
Here’s a short excerpt from Mr. Ford’s thoughtful comments:
“I think most of us in this town would tell you to scale the size of this thing down to what you legally have to do — I’m not saying ‘bare bones,’ but get it down to where it needs to be. Get it down to a reasonable size. Because we have some roads we need to take care of. We have a school that needs to be added onto. I could easily name ten things that we need to do bond issues for.
“But what you are doing in draining as much money out of the community as you can — all at once — and then this community will turn down every bond issue that comes after it.
“And we do have other things, as a community, that we want to do.”
Mr. Ford has been serving for the past five years on a committee that interviews judges to fill court vacancies, and the committee has interviewed 30 candidates for judgeships.
“Almost every one of the candidates — maybe 90 percent of them — when they start out telling us why they want to be a judge, and the things they think are exciting, it’s the alternative sentencing that’s coming down; it’s the change in the drug laws; it’s the change in mental health. It’s the things that, they say, will allow them to send fewer people to jail.
“But yet, you want us to fund a jail that’s twice as big as we need today.”
I assume the BOCC understood Mr. Ford’s point: that we will not need more jail cells in the coming years; we will need fewer jail cells. In fact, this change appears to be taking place here in Archuleta County already.
In June of 2015, I submitted a CORA [Colorado Open Records Act] request to the Archuleta County Sheriff Office, and a couple of months later, I received the following letter from Undersheriff Tonya Hamilton:
Here are the statistics you requested on “inmate days.” Hope this helps.
JAN 1, 2010 TO DEC 31, 2010 8,326 INMATE DAYS
JAN 1, 2011 TO DEC 31, 2011 7,547 INMATE DAYS
JAN 1, 2012 TO DEC 31, 2012 9,189 INMATE DAYS
JAN 1, 2013 TO DEC 31, 2013 4,418 INMATE DAYS
JAN 1, 2014 TO DEC 31, 2014 5,286 INMATE DAYS
JAN 1, 2015 TO APR 22, 2015 1,981 INMATE DAYS
APR 24, 2015 TO JUN 7, 2015 323 INMATE DAYS IN LA PLATA
Undersheriff Tonya M. Hamilton
Archuleta County Sheriff’s Department
According to my pocket calculator, the average number of “inmate days” in 2010, 2011, and 2012 — the number of inmates, times the number of days each inmate was incarcerated — was about 8,354 “inmate days.” Divide that number by 365 days per year, and we see that the Archuleta County Detention Center housed an average of 29 inmates per day.
Then, in 2012, Colorado legalized the possession and use of marijuana.
The average for 2013, 2014 and 2015 was 4,822 “inmate days.” That averages out to 13 inmates per day… less than half the average inmate population of the previous three-year period.
Mr. Ford directed a comment to Commissioner Ronnie Maez.
“I understand the risks of transporting inmates to the Durango jail. I’ve talked to you about this, Ronnie. But there’s nothing wrong with shipping people over there in an emergency. People do that all over this nation. Is it risky to transport inmates? Yes. But it’s also risky to drive to Walmart in Durango, and people here did that for years, just to go shopping.
“I’m not saying we want to transport felons, but there are other kinds of prisoners that we could house in Durango, if we bumped up against [temporary overcrowding]…
“I submit that you go back to what your needs assessment was, add Dispatch in there, and cut $5 million off this project.”
I assume Mr. Ford was here referring to the needs assessment done by the County staff two years ago, before the architects got their hands on this project and greatly expanded the sizes of the buildings.
Following a roof leak in April 2015, we heard from the BOCC that the jail, which had been poorly maintained for at least 20 years, was going to be completely abandoned, and that the taxpayers were going to have to pony up for a new County jail and for new and expanded Sheriff’s offices. The west wing of the old Courthouse was a total loss and could not be renovated. Or so we were told.
The BOCC then published a study of the expanded space requirements that would be needed in the new facility, now in the planning stages. Here’s the “expanded space needs” report developed by the County staff.
The jail needed to be slightly larger: 10,000 square feet. The Sheriff needed about 6,000 square feet. Then the BOCC hired architects to verify those numbers.
What a difference two years can make. The planned $27 million tax increase measure approved by two of the three commissioners on Tuesday is based on a Sheriff’s office that measures 13,000 square feet — nearly four times the amount of space occupied by the Sheriff in 2015 — and a jail that is twice the size of the current (but abandoned) jail facility.
Mr. Ford noted that many Colorado counties benefit from oil and gas revenues, or revenues from mining or gambling. Archuleta County is basically limited to taxes paid by local residents and visitors.
“So we’re limited to the amount of taxes we can raise. Don’t use them all for a jail and Sheriff’s offices.”
“I’m convinced we need a new jail. I helped you guys find a new piece of property. I’m continuing to work with [County attorney Todd Starr]. I’m not totally against a new jail.
“But by sizing the facility this way, you took somebody who was a believer and a helper into somebody who is a ‘No’ vote. There is no way I can look at this scale, and concluded that you guys are being fiscally responsible.”
Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at possible loopholes written into the ballot language itself, courtesy of questions posed by local taxpayer Cynda Green.