EDITORIAL: The Selling of the New Jail, Part Three

Read Part One

Near the conclusion of the “public meeting” on September 19 — organized by local activists Carl and Carol Mellberg to promote expanded facilities for the County Sheriff, and the $26.6 million tax increase that would fund the new facilities — local architect Brad Ash and Denver-based architect Bob Johnson explained what the facility might look like, and why it might cost so much to build it.

At the public Community Center presentation on September 19, 2017, Architect Brad Ash shows us where a “future Courthouse” might be located, adjacent to the proposed Sheriff’s facilities on the Harman Park site.

We will note the word: “might.” The actual ballot language that county voters will consider this November does not promise anything about the design, size, or actual cost of the proposed facilities. The ballot measure promises only that we will pay up to $26.6 million in additional sales tax over the next 12 to 14 years, at a rate of up to $2.9 million per year, and that up to $20.5 million will be spent on “new debt.” And that at least a portion of the money will be used for “a new Detention Center and new Sheriff’s Offices.”

Legally, the money can be spent on anything defined by the County as “Justice System Capital Improvements” — according to the ballot language.

One new thing I learned at the promotional event: that the architects will be charging a commission based upon 8.5 percent of the final construction price, in order to draw the design. According to my pocket calculator, that “soft cost” would come to about $1.2 million paid to the architects, for a facility with estimated construction “hard costs” of $14.1 million.

The total estimated cost of the new and expanded Sheriff’s facilities — including “hard” and “soft” costs — is $17.9 million.  Call it $18 million.

The request from the Colorado Judicial Department, asking for expanded courtroom space and court office space, is at least three years old. The decision to abandon our existing Detention Center took place in April 2015 — well after the BOCC had begun discussions with the Judicial Department. But the bond measure headed for this November’s ballot says nothing specifically about the Courts.

The BOCC has made some vague promises to the Judicial Department, however — to the effect that, if the Sheriff’s facility tax increase is approved by the voters, the BOCC would at some point figure out a way to convert our existing (but abandoned) jail into court spaces, at a cost that has never been firmly defined.

Everyone who presented at the Mellberg’s September 19 promotional event spoke in favor of the proposed tax increase, assuring us that it would be completely impractical to renovate the existing jail, and that the County Sheriff truly needs an office three times the size he was occupying in 2014.

No one presenting on September 19 addressed the long-standing requests coming from the Judicial Department for additional courtroom and office space.

No one presenting on September 19 mentioned that the Sheriff’s average number of jail inmates housed at the County jail between 2010 – 2012 was “29 inmates”… and that the average number of inmates between 2013-2015 was “13 inmates.” (Based on data provided by the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office. More details about that calculation in this Daily Post article.)

The primary problem on September 19, however, was that no one addressed how this project had got so far off track, in terms of efficient, sensible government spending.

In January 2016, the consulting architects presented the Board of County Commissioners a sketched plan to expand our existing County Courthouse to accommodate the expansion of the Judicial Department, provide a new “state of the art” detention center, and expand the Sheriff’s office.

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Here we can see the two existing Courthouse buildings on the right side: the older 1928 section to the farthest right and the larger 1991 Sheriff’s offices and Detention Center to the left of that, with public parking to the south.

And a big vacant lot on the left.  That lot has been sitting vacant, weed-covered, since about 2007.  It once accommodated four local businesses.  It now contributes to the unpleasant impression that Pagosa’s historic downtown is slowly dying, as additional empty lots have appeared along the main boulevard (Highway 160.)

The vacant Moity property, adjacent to the County Courthouse, summer 2016.

The rough sketch plan of an expanded County Courthouse, as presented by architects Brad Ash of Reynolds Ash + Associates, and Bob Johnson of Reilly Johnson Architecture in January 2016, made generous use of the one-acre vacant parcel located just to the west of, and adjacent to, the existing Courthouse — the parcel currently owned by Randolph Moity, but on the market in 2016 for around $600,000.

The two architects had converted the newer west wing of the Courthouse — the part that used to be the Sheriff’s Office and County jail, but which is at the moment unoccupied — into a 15,000 square-foot courtroom and court office space. They had then located a new jail and a new Sheriff’s Office next door on the adjoining Moity property.

This “everything in one location” plan was estimated at about $20 million.

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This plan was rejected by two of our three County Commissioners — Steve Wadley and Clifford Lucero — in favor of a $28 million location on Hot Springs Boulevard, purportedly because Mr. Moity wanted to retain six parking spaces on the vacant parcel.

Now we are faced with a ballot measure that proposes an $18 million facility in Harman that does not include the courts — it includes only Sheriff facilities. Meaning that the Sheriff will have to transport inmates, back and forth to the downtown Courthouse… maybe for the next several decades?

Let’s see. We could have had new and expanded Sheriff’s facilities, AND new and expanded court facilities — an “everything in one location” solution — for maybe $20 million.

But now — if we approve this ballot measure — we will get ONLY separate Sheriff facilities located two miles away from the courtrooms, for $18 million.

How does a government agency come to make such a financially bad proposal?

Read Part Four…

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.