EDITORIAL: County’s Big Plans Getting Smaller? Part One

“The definition of economics is the allocation of scarce resources. This community has scarce resources…”

— Businessman Mark Weiler, at the BOCC’s public hearing on November 14, 2017

A few things were made clear when a roomful of concerned citizens gathered in the Archuleta County administration building on the morning of Tuesday, November 14 — a week after the November 7 election — to discuss the failure of Ballot Measure 1A to win voter approval.

Former Archuleta County Commissioner Clifford Lucero offers his thoughts to the BOCC at a public hearing on November 14, 2017.

Ballot Measure 1A had been “Plan A” for the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners, although it had been endorsed by only two of our three commissioners. (One might think, if a group of leaders were going to ask the community for millions of dollars in increased taxes, they would work hard enough to come up with a proposal that all three commissioners could endorse, but that’s not how the processed unfolded this past year.)

And there was no Plan B. But we already knew that.

Back in June, when the BOCC held a joint meeting with the Pagosa Springs Town Council, Commissioner Steve Wadley had a told us, in no uncertain terms, that there was no Plan B.

Commissioner Wadley, speaking at that joint meeting:

“I think we all recognize the need, that this problem has to be solved as quickly as possible, and it’s long overdue.

“And we have no… (pause)… There is no Plan B. So this [tax increase] has to be approved. Our Plan B is years and years of hauling prisoners to Durango… and at some point, you know… [La Plata County] is happy to take them now, but at some point, they may not be. Or they can hold us up, for whatever price they want.

“We’re over a barrel.”

Indeed, a decision had been long overdue, but if the BOCC was over a barrel, they had put themselves there. The Sixth Judicial District has been asking for expanded courtroom and office space for at least three years, and it had been more than two years since the BOCC abandoned its County detention center following a serious roof leak. During all that time, a large vacant lot has been growing weeds next door to the existing Courthouse and detention center — just waiting for some type of development to occur. Like, say, a modest expansion of County facilities?

archuleta county courthouse downtown pagosa springs

The lot next door to the County Courthouse on San Juan Street has been vacant and covered with weeds since 2006.

At any rate, the BOCC had finally determined that the “1980 portion of the old building” — the jail and Sheriff’s Office portion — was totally unsuitable for a remodeled jail facility, but for some reason would serve very well as expanded courtroom and office space. (The “1980 portion” was actually built in 1991.)

Instead of remodeling the existing jail — for an estimated price tag of about $2 million — the BOCC had been promoting the idea of building brand new facilities elsewhere, at a cost of somewhere between $20 million and $29 million.  The price on the November ballot that been “up to $26.6 million.”

So much for Plan A.

At the meeting on Tuesday, we learned a few things. We learned that the five-acre parcel in Harman Park — which had been offered to the County as a future donation, had the voters approved a tax increase for a new Sheriff’s facility on November 7 — was still ‘on the table’ as a viable location, should the Board of County Commissioners come up with a reasonable Plan B.

The five-acre parcel adjacent to the Fred Harman Art Museum, where Archuleta County might someday build new County facilities.

The primary consideration, for the future donors of that property — namely, the Fred Harman Art Museum — was a guarantee from the County that permanent space would be included in the facilities plan, where the artwork of famed cartoonist Fred Harman, Sr. could be displayed.

We also learned that the Sixth Judicial District was never, ever going to re-occupy their courtrooms and offices in the current County Courthouse.

Never, ever.

According to Chief Judge Jeffrey Wilson and Court Administrator Eric Hogue, the court system would much prefer to operate in some building — somewhere in town — that was never designed or intended to function as a courtroom or as court offices, than to ever set foot back in the existing County Courthouse which has been functioning in that capacity for over 80 years.

You can read a little bit about that discussion here.

We all realize that the County Courthouse has some severe limitations, and that it has been sorely neglected — in terms of maintenance and necessary upgrades — over the past two decades while a string of County commissioners dreamed about building a nice, new courthouse… somewhere… someday.

Where, exactly, the Judicial District now believes it will find a building better suited to court functions than the County Courthouse is not immediately clear.

We also learned that Archuleta residents, who were political opponents during the campaign leading up to the November 7 vote, could gather in a room together and conduct a civil discussion about what Plan B might look like.  We heard, for example, a general agreement that ordinary, grassroots citizens ought to play a more important political role during the development of Plan B… and that “top down” decisions, such as the ones that led up to Ballot Measure 1A, were perhaps not the best approach when asking taxpayers for multi-million-dollar tax increases.

We learned that the BOCC is divided on the issue of using nominally-legal — but perhaps financially unwise — funding mechanisms like ‘Certificates of Participation’ and ‘Lease Purchase Agreements’ to create government debt for a future facilities project. Commissioner Ronnie Maez, who first took office in January, held up that type of funding as a viable option, while Commissioner Steve Wadley counseled against using funding methods that don’t go through a voter approval process.

On Monday, I’d like to briefly discuss the use of ‘Lease Purchase Agreements’ — which Colorado governments often use to avoid the requirements of the Colorado Constitution — and why the taxpayers end up getting screwed in the process.

Read Part Two…

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.