EDITORIAL: The Selling of the New Jail, Part Two

Read Part One

Back in 1993, when my family and I moved to Pagosa Springs, a florist shop called “The Greenery” was located in an old, green Victorian house at the east end of the downtown commercial district. According to the County Assessor’s website, the house was built in 1898. I was told that the house had, prior to becoming a florist’s shop, previously served as the community’s funeral home.

That house is still standing in 2017, and is home to one of Pagosa’s most popular restaurants — Riff Raff Brewing Company. Riff Raff does a bustling business serving both locals and tourists in a fairly equal mix, and their beer is — in my humble opinion — some of the best in southwest Colorado.

During the 24 years between 1993 and 2017, that old Victorian had been occupied by a series of Pagosa restaurants and shops, some successful and popular, some not so much. But one thing remained constant: the building was cared for, and lovingly remodeled for each new business use.

Two years prior to 1993, Archuleta County had invested in a new Detention Center, in response to a court decree issued in 1987. The fancy new jail facility was built to 1981 American Correctional Association (ACA) standards. Some people referred to the new jail as “state of the art,” but in fact, it was completed the same year that the ACA issued its new, more comprehensive 1991 standards. So the moment the jail opened its doors, it was already operating under ten-year-old standards.

I learned much of the above information from former County Commissioner Ronnie Zaday, during a “public information event” hosted by Carl and Carol Mellberg and held on Tuesday, September 19 at the Ross Aragon Community Center. The obvious purpose of the event was to convince the taxpaying public that we ought to increase our local sales tax by one percent, for up to 14 years, to pay for a brand new detention facility — twice the size of our existing (but abandoned) County jail — and also, for a new and greatly expanded Sheriff’s office. At a cost of up to $27 million.

We also learned from Ms. Zaday that, in 2008, the BOCC received a report stating that the Archuleta County Detention Center had passed an inspection performed by the National Institute of Corrections, an agency within the U.S. Department of Justice. (A search of the NIC website did not bring up that 2008 report; neither did a search of the Archuleta County website.)

Nevertheless, Ms. Zaday completely rejected the idea that the jail could be rehabilitated, upgraded, or renovated. She wants us to spend $27 million to build a new jail. She concluded, at the end of her presentation:

“We have the funding mechanism, to be able to put this [new facility] in place. And we, as a community, need to stand up and make it happen.”

Former County Commissioner Ronnie Zaday makes her pitch for a $27 million tax increase, September 19, 2017. Also shown are tax increase supporters, from left, John Weiss, Jim Huffman and George Barter.

The next event presenter was former Undersheriff John Weiss, who ended his presentation with this conclusion:

“My wife and I are citizens of this county — been here since 1990 — and we are going to live in that same house probably until we leave this earth… in 40 years, maybe… maybe 30 years. But we are going to be here, and we need a new jail. We support it 100 percent.”

Which brings up an interesting point. How long do we stay in the same house… and when do we move into a bigger house… or add an extra bedroom?

Or, to be more in tune with 2017, when do we move into a smaller house?

Buildings often have a useful life longer than the 26-year lifespan of our existing County jail, when they are maintained and cared for. The older portion of the County Courthouse, originally built as a bank sometime prior to 1928, has served as the primary home for our local County government since 1929. I think that’s 88 years? For 88 years, the Courthouse has been a suitable home for various County departments and for the Judicial District and its court functions.

Then we got a roof leak in the newest portion of the building.

We are now listening to part-time Sheriff’s lieutenant George Barter:

“So [the other presenters] were talking a little bit about a new jail, and this jail. There is no jail here [in the Courthouse.] There’s not. The building was declared uninhabitable in April of 2015. We’ve been using two steel cages, built at one end of the office building, as a jail. It doesn’t meet any standard. It was so bad, when I studied the facility, I told them, ‘You can’t call this a jail. It’s a holding facility. It’s not fit to hold any prisoners for a period that exceeds a few hours.’

“It doesn’t have bathroom facilities. The prisoners have to be taken back and forth down to the bathroom. The security was insufficient. There are doors that open from the outside into the jail…

“It was unfit, it was unsafe, it was too small. It was illegal. We were breaking laws. And violating standards — not only national standards, but also state standards. So it’s a holding facility. It can’t be used now, because the building is unfit. It’s closed.”

An odd story, and not a pleasant one. The Sheriff abandoned his detention center in 2015 because of a roof leak, and then built a couple of tiny “holding cells” inside the office area of the Courthouse west wing, where his staff has been housing inmates illegally.  He’s also been transporting inmates to Durango, to be housed in the La Plata County jail.

Old buildings are not uninhabitable merely because they are old. They become uninhabitable because the owner fails to maintain them properly, fails to expand them when they need expansion, fails to upgrade them when they need to be upgraded.

Neglect is what makes old buildings into “condemned” buildings.

Our existing jail had a major roof leak in April 2015. When a building suffers from flooding or rain damage — and we’ve seen a lot of that this past summer, in Texas and in Florida — the owner has the option to repair the damage, or merely walk away and let the building rot.

In April 2015, someone decided to walk away from the existing jail, and allow it to fall into neglect. It’s been sitting, neglected, for over two years now. A taxpayer-funded structure… once “state of the art” but poorly maintained for 25 years, and now abandoned as useless…even dangerous.

But… is it really useless, and dangerous? If you have been paying attention to the discussions at the BOCC meetings, you understand that, if the voters approve the $27 million tax increase for the new jail, the County plans to then move the courts into the Sheriff’s Office and County jail — spending millions more remodeling the structure they’ve neglected for the past 30 months, to convert it into courtrooms and court offices.

In a building expressly built as a jail, in 1991.

Would you willingly give your money to this organization?

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.