EDITORIAL: Big Stink at the County Courthouse, Part Four

Read Part One

A few facts about the County Courthouse are clear. But only a precious few. I supposed that’s typical during a tax increase campaign, when well-paid County officials are seeking to extract more money from the pockets of Archuleta County taxpayers to build — not better roads, but bigger County facilities for themselves.

It’s a fact, for example, that the existing County jail has been abandoned by our elected officials since May 2015. What has never been clear is why it was abandoned — why our elected officials refused to seize upon the roof leak as an opportunity to finally remodel the jail into a first-class facility — and why they instead chose to simply close the doors and leave them closed. Without knowing the whole story, we are tempted to assume that certain elected County officials relished the opportunity to spend millions of taxpayer dollars (that they didn’t yet have) on new facilities, and thought this scheme would acquire popular support if they simply abandoned the jail, and left it abandoned.

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.

It’s also a fact that Sheriff Valdez has had his deputies transporting inmates to and from Durango for 29 months, because of the decision to abandon the existing jail. Another fact is that the cost of housing our inmates in Durango has been much, much cheaper than it was costing us to house them here in our existing jail in 2014.

But the “facts” about the air quality in the Courthouse west wing? Those are not at all clear.

Here’s County Commissioner Michael Whiting, during an impromptu press conference on October 3, reacting to letters from Chief Judge Jeffrey Wilson and County Sheriff Rich Valdez:

“I don’t doubt the way these people are feeling, I don’t question their feelings. I don’t doubt that they think these things are true. Rich [Valdez] and Tonya [Hamilton, Undersheriff] were talking about the testing they had done — the CO [carbon monoxide] testing. We have no grounding in facts here. Rich mentioned a level of ‘6’. Is that ‘6 parts per million’?”

Commissioner Whiting quoted a few ‘facts’ that he’d gleaned from a “quick Google search.’ From what I can tell, from listening back to the audio recording of the press conference, Mr. Whiting did not yet understand that individual human exposure is usually measured as blood concentration in “percent COHb” — while general environmental conditions are measured in “ppm” — parts per million in the air. (See Part Three for a more thorough discussion about CO poisoning.)

“We need some factual baseline here, and that kind of emotional… I mean, I get it that carbon monoxide is scary, but to talk about going from ‘1’ to ‘2’… or from ‘3’ to ‘6’…   On what scale?

“But I’m not going to confront Rich about statements like that, because it just becomes fodder for…”

Commissioner Whiting didn’t finish his sentence. I presume he was going to say, “fodder for the media.”

He continued:

“There are so many ‘guesses’ going on here — so much ‘non-fact’ — in the Judge’s letter, and in the rhetoric that’s being pumped out into the community… I’m not going to guess as to the motive… I’m sure the most significant motive is staff safety.  But the panic?”

“We can’t be dealing outside the realm of facts. Because if we do, that’s a disservice to our bigger picture, which is solving our facilities problem. This is all a distraction and a disservice…

“The timing of these [employee] illnesses looks really bad. And people really were sick — but that’s all we know. We can’t actually connect those illnesses to the building at this point. So, what do policy-makers do, when we have a building that people think is dangerous — and we’ve tested it four times, for everything our experts say we should test for… and none of the professionals we’ve hired have ever told us to do longer tests, or to test at different times of the year. None of them have said that… And that’s the kind of thing a professional would tell you…

“If we have a problem with geothermal seepage, then my [personal] office on Lewis Street has the same problem, because it smells just like the Courthouse. And the [family that owns the Healing Waters Resort] has an even bigger problem, because they live with that smell, all the time.

“We’ve got a situation where the courts and the Sheriff are saying, ‘We’re not going back into that building — doesn’t matter what our consultants say, or yours. We’re not going back in there.’ They’re saying, ‘Science be damned, tests be damned — we’re not going back into that building because we know and believe there’s something wrong with the building.’

“I don’t doubt that they know and believe that, in their minds. But what do we do — what do policy-makers do — what can we do? We can condemn the building, declare that it’s not habitable, and then make decisions based on that. Or we can say, ‘We’ve tested the building. It’s habitable. It’s available; it’s the building we’re providing. Move back in — or don’t.

“Because we can’t force them to move back in. We can only provide a space that we believe is safe. What else do we test for? What else do we test for? Carbon monoxide?

County Administrator Bentley Henderson:

“We tested for that. It came back zero parts per million.”

Commissioner Whiting:

“Here’s my problem. We’ve got symptoms looking for a disease, in a building. We’ve got sick people, so we test for hydrogen sulfide. Comes back negative. Then we are told, it’s carbon monoxide. We test for CO. Negative. Well, maybe it’s… structural?

“They’re just looking for an excuse. They don’t want to go back into the building.  I get that…

“If you don’t want to go back into the building, you can come up with a hundred reasons — and none of them are health-related.

“Zero parts per million is zero parts per million.”

From Sheriff Valdez’ letter dated October 3:

“As Judge Wilson explained in his letter, the Undersheriff and I had our CO levels tested prior to going into the [Courthouse] and as soon as we left the building. Both of our CO levels doubled in about an hour’s time.

“This is extremely concerning to me and unequivocally proves to me that the building is not suitable to our staff, our public and our inmates at this time. These anomalies, these sicknesses, and the test results themselves speak volumes to me.”

As I said at the beginning of this editorial: a few facts about the County Courthouse are clear. But only a precious few.

One more fact, before we move on. The proposed $27 million tax increase is based on two new (but connected) County buildings: a Sheriff’s Office more than three times the size in use by Sheriff Gonzalez in 2014, and a new Jail twice the size of the existing (but abandoned) County detention center. The proposed facility does not include any courtroom space or courtroom offices.

I imagine that fact is a concern, to Chief Judge Jeffrey Wilson.

Read Part Five…


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.