EDITORIAL: Big Stink at the County Courthouse, Part Five

Read Part One

My apologies to our readers. I thought I was done writing about the curious Archuleta County Courthouse air quality controversy for a while… when I wrote Part Four yesterday.

Then I received a copy of a new letter, written by 6th Judicial District Chief Judge Jeffrey Wilson, and forwarded to the Pagosa Springs media by Court Administrator Eric Hogue.

The letter, dated October 10, is addressed to County Administrator Bentley Henderson and County Attorney Todd Starr, and begins this way:

As of October 10, 2017 at 4:00 PM, I have not received a response to the letter I sent the Archuleta County BOCC dated September 26, 2017, requesting the County find a suitable facility to use that will accommodate a clerk’s office, probation office and courtroom. Eric Hogue, the District Administrator for the Sixth Judicial District, requested in an email sent to Commissioner Maez and County Attorney Todd Starr on October 3, 2017, that the BOCC respond to my letter by 5:00 PM Friday, October 6, 2017. Because we have not received a response, or any notice that the BOCC wishes for more time to respond, the Judicial District will begin looking for suitable space immediately. If Archuleta County would like to participate in the selection of temporary court facilities, please contact Eric Hogue.

Judge Wilson’s letter then mentions the Underfunded Courthouse Facility Commission and the grant funding that may be available — in particular, when a facility is facing “imminent closure.”

From the letter (which you can download here):

Section 13-1-302(4), C.R.S. defines “imminent closure of a court facility” as a court facility with health, life or safety issues that impact court employees or other court users and that is designated for imminent closure by the state court administrator in consultation with the state’s risk management system or other appropriate professionals. Health, life, or safety issues include air quality issues, water intrusion problems, temperate control issues, structural conditions that cannot reasonably be mitigated, fire hazards, electrical hazards, and utility problems.

Daily Post readers who have been following this story probably understand that the Archuleta County Courthouse has been suffering from many of the above-named issues for several decades. Maybe all of these issues?

But up until the appearance of a $27 million tax increase proposal, the courts have been willing to play the patient tenant in that poorly-maintained building, while consistently encouraging a publicly-funded expansion to provide additional (and purportedly necessary) courtroom and court office space.

The process has no doubt been frustrating for the courts.

Meanwhile, we have watched the rest of downtown Pagosa — the parts owned by private citizens — undergo a thirty-process of improvement and upgrades.  Nearly every building in the main commercial district has seen interior and exterior renovations since the early 1990s.  (That is to say, those that weren’t demolished by CDOT or by developer David Brown — or destroyed by fire.)

Unfortunately for the 6th Judicial District, the BOCC’s 2017 ballot proposal is aimed at building a new jail and Sheriff’s Office.  At no point in the past few months has the BOCC had a serious public discussion about the needs of the Judicial District.  You could say, the courts have been treated like the red-headed stepchild during the recent planning process.

To be honest about the situation, the BOCC has spent years applying band-aids to the brick-and-concrete structure in the heart of downtown Pagosa, and finally got around to putting an expensive new roof on the Sheriff’s Office and Detention Center wing in April 2015. That project didn’t go exactly as planned.

Archuleta County Courthouse, 2016.

Judge Wilson notes, in his new letter, that Archuleta County was awarded $60,000 by the Underfunded Courthouse Facility Commission for the planning of a new “Justice Center.”  It is rather unfortunate that the money — plus another $40,000 — was wasted by County Commissioners Clifford Lucero and Steve Wadley, planning a facility on an impractically-small, deed-restricted, and terrain-challenged site on Hot Springs Boulevard.

That facility plan now sits in the trash can. Sometimes, you give money to a government agency, and they just piss it away.

The judge also mentioned an additional $200,000 award from the Underfunded Courthouse Facility Commission that was never utilized, due to the sudden change in the location of the proposed facility — and the fact that the new facility proposal now does not include the courts.

The judge suggested that the $200,000 grant might still be available, if the BOCC would consider doing some actual planning that includes courtroom space and court offices in a new facility.  He also suggested that even more money might be available in 2018 — particularly if the BOCC or other agency were to condemn the Courthouse.

The Underfunded Courthouse Facility Commission is scheduled to meet on December 15, 2017, in case the BOCC wants to get their hands on some of that free money.

Judge Wilson closes his letter:

On behalf of the 6th Judicial District, I reiterate our commitment to find suitable facilities where we are able to safely serve the citizens of Archuleta County in collaboration with the County.

Thus far in the story, we have not seen any scientific test results that would justify the condemnation of our existing Courthouse based on air quality concerns.  We also have another little problem that no one seems to be talking about.  The Courthouse was used as collateral for a $4 million Park Avenue re-paving project loan (never approved by the voters.)  I believe repayment of that loan is still in progress?

Not sure how the investment bankers would feel about the County or the Judicial District condemning a building that’s securing a $4 million debt.

This whole thing would have been so much simpler if the BOCC had simply maintained their building properly.  But that’s water under the bridge at this point.  Or maybe, water coming through the roof?

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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.