EDITORIAL: Wheels of Justice… or Justice on Wheels? Part Three

Read Part One

“Hydrogen sulfide is a broad-spectrum poison, meaning that it can poison several different systems in the body, although the nervous system is most affected. The toxicity of H2S is comparable with that of carbon monoxide…”

Wikipedia

When I checked in with Archuleta County Administrator Bentley Henderson late yesterday afternoon, I was told that the preliminary air quality tests conducted yesterday in the County Courthouse had found “no detectable levels” of hydrogen sulfide gas — the irritant suspected of causing respiratory ailments in a couple of Sheriff’s deputies, who reportedly ended up in the hospital. Hydrogen sulfide — the “rotten egg smelling” chemical found in sewer gases, and emanating from geothermal hot springs — is detectable to the human nose at levels of about 1ppm (parts per million.) It becomes an irritant at around 3pmm, and health-threatening at about 10ppm.

Mr. Henderson told me that the hand-held hydrogen sulfide detectors used by the testing company yesterday in the County Courthouse were sensitive to levels as low as 0.01pmm — and detected no H2S. Additional testing equipment has been set up throughout the building, he said, to confirm those results, and to test for other possible air quality threats, but the results from those various detectors will not be available for a few days — or, in some cases, not for a couple of weeks.

He said that the County Clerk, the County Assessor and the County Treasurer would be back in their offices inside the Courthouse this morning… and I assume the building will once again be open to the public.

Meanwhile, Court Clerk Debbie Tulley told me that the Judicial System judges and staff are waiting for independent testing by their own testing company, before they re-open the judicial offices and courtrooms in the building. Ms. Tulley has set up temporary office space in the County Administration building at 398 Lewis Street.  Court cases are being heard in Durango.

At this point, the Courthouse situation does not appear to be a “catastrophic disaster.”

The entrance to the abandoned County jail as it appeared on a sunny July morning, 2017. The jail facility has been sitting vacant since May, 2015.

I have no information about Sheriff Rich Valdez’ plans to re-open law enforcement offices in the building.

I shared a portion of a letter, yesterday in Part Two, written by local activist Carl Mellberg and submitted on Monday to the weekly Pagosa Springs SUN. Mr. Mellberg had handed me a copy of the letter at Tuesday’s Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) work session. His letter had been sent to SUN editor Terri House, with the following title:

“Proposed court house / sheriffs offices / jail”

Mr. Mellberg has been serving as a volunteer “ex officio campaign manager” for Sheriff Rich Valdez these past few months, doing whatever he can to encourage voter approval of a one percent sales tax increase that will appear on the November ballot. I attend a lot of BOCC meetings, in my role as Pagosa’s local muckraker, and I’ve seen Mr. Mellberg in attendance at a significant number of those meetings. I could easily assume that Mr. Mellberg knows as much about the proposed tax increase and County facilities expansion as just about anyone outside the County government.

So I have to mention a curious thing about Mr. Mellberg’s letter, which begins with the aforementioned title, and then this sentence:

“When it comes to the need for a new Justice Center, it seems that it takes a catastrophic disaster with potential loss of life to move our commissioners from the indecisive complacency that seems to be their M.O. …”

If an average taxpayer were to read that title, and that sentence, they might form the impression that the proposed $27 million tax increase is intended to pay for the construction of a “court house / sheriffs office / jail” and that this complex will then constitute a “new Justice Center.”

In fact, the proposal approved one year ago by commissioners Clifford Lucero and Steve Wadley — with commissioner Michael Whiting voting against — was indeed a “Justice Center.” It was a new courthouse, a new Sheriff’s Office, and a new jail, to be located on five acres at the end of Hot Springs Boulevard. Construction cost was estimated at $28 million, not including interest payments on the loan.

The current proposal — still in a somewhat vague state of development — is not a “Justice Center,” because it does not include any courtroom or office space for the Colorado Judicial Department. The current proposal includes only Sheriff’s offices and a new (50 bed? 60 bed?) detention center.

For over two years, we watched the BOCC and County staff and hired consultants kick around ideas for the best possible (and most financially feasible) “Justice Center.” Because inmates in a county jail regularly find themselves going back and forth between the jail and the courtrooms and court offices, the most reasonable physical arrangement, for a local justice system, is to have the jail adjoined to the Courthouse, connected by elevators and hallways. And to have the Sheriff’s Office also adjoined to the jail, since the Sheriff manages the jail.  That’s the situation we had, in the existing Courthouse, until April 2015.

And that was indeed the plan for the new facility, a year ago. But no longer.

What the proposed $27 million tax increase promises is a permanent separation of the Sheriff and jail from the courts. This is not a “proposed court house / sheriffs offices / jail” nor is it a “Justice Center.” The $27 million tax increase is, at the moment, aimed only at a much-expanded Sheriff’s facility — a “Public Safety Complex,” perhaps, but not a “Justice Center.”

To quote a bit more from Mr. Mellberg’s letter:

“Our trusted board of commissioners have been kicking this can down the road for over two and half years with precious little to show for it. Their answer is most generally something like, ‘Well… we need to think about this some more.’ What kind of an answer is that, for such a crucial issue like this?”

Mr. Mellberg is correct when he says that the current BOCC has been considering the best way to address problems in the existing County Courthouse for at least two and a half years. In fact, a previous BOCC purchased five acres on Hot Springs Boulevard, back in 1999, with vague plans to move the County’s administrative functions out of the Courthouse and convert the existing Courthouse into a ‘Justice Center.’

But of course, the problem has been ‘money.’

How does one, in good conscience, invest in expanded government offices, when so many of our county roads are falling slowly into disrepair? And when the airport requires millions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades? And when County employees need salary increases? And when the community is struggling to grow economically? And when employees at many different income levels can’t find affordable housing?

That is to say, we have several other crucial issues, still unaddressed, that Mr. Mellberg didn’t mention in his letter.

His letter concludes:

“There will be a public meeting on [Tuesday] September 19 in the South Conference Room at the community center from 7pm to 9pm to hopefully answer all your questions. Please come!!”

Another government organization also seeking a tax increase — the San Juan Water Conservancy District — held a similar “informational” public meeting in the Community Center a week ago. The turnout to that particular public meeting was… shall we say, scanty?

We’ll be reporting on that meeting tomorrow in the Daily Post.

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.