EDITORIAL: Courthouse Fantasies, Part One

The next morning, as soon as the sun was up, they started on their way, and soon saw a beautiful green glow in the sky just before them.

“That must be the Emerald City,” said Dorothy.

As they walked on, the green glow became brighter and brighter, and it seemed that at last they were nearing the end of their travels. Yet it was afternoon before they came to the great wall that surrounded the City. It was high, and thick, and of a bright green color.

In front of them, and at the end of the road of yellow brick, was a big gate, all studded with emeralds that glittered so in the sun that even the painted eyes of the Scarecrow were dazzled by their brilliancy.

Distant visions of somewhat less dazzling buildings were apparent at two Archuleta Board of County Commissioners’ meetings yesterday, January 2.  And the conversations were not completely friendly… particularly when Sheriff Rich Valdez had his turn at the podium.

Nor when the BOCC announced its intentions to originate a possible lawsuit.

The first indication of courthouse fantasies made its appearance at the morning “BOCC Work Session,” when our three commissioners — Steve Wadley, Ronnie Maez and Michael Whiting — began discussing the idea of convening a citizens’ task force to develop and possibly help promote a solution to the abandoned County Jail and Sheriff’s Office on San Juan Street.

Some folks might believe that the BOCC cannot reasonably expect the voters to approve a tax increase in November 2018, if the plan sounds exactly like the BOCC plan the electorate rejected two months ago.  Maybe something new and different should be proposed? Perhaps a group of volunteer citizens could do a better job at designing something the voters would buy off on?

Commissioner Ronnie Maez:

“We need to have a discussion about whether we form a committee. Or if we move with the plans that we have a lot of money invested in, and maybe re-design the building or something.

“There’s a possibility we’re looking at a November election again. We need to decide if we’re sticking with the same building size, the same building dimensions, or whether we need to change inside the building and how much goes in the building, and maybe downsize the [Sheriff’s administration] side?

“I wouldn’t suggest that we downsize the jail side. I think we’re going to need those in the future, and that’s the most expensive part of the building.”

When the Commissioner talks about the “most expensive part,” he is not, of course, talking about jail cells studded with emeralds, but rather a detention facility that conscientiously meets the social and physical needs of incarcerated individuals, as defined by recent federal court cases.

One can hardly imagine a government function as expensive as a jail facility. During 2014 — the year prior to the roof leak at the Courthouse on San Juan Street, and the year prior to a Sheriff’s decision to house inmates temporarily in Durango — the Archuleta County Sheriff spent $1,001,162 housing an average of 13 inmates per day in the Archuleta County Detention Center. That same year, the Sheriff spent $626,924 on deputies patrolling a community of 12,000 people scattered across 1,356 square miles. That’s according to County budget documents.

In 2016, the Sheriff was still housing inmates in Durango while the BOCC argued over the design and location of a new County jail. The budget for housing inmates in Durango was $171,000. The cost for transporting them, to and from Durango, was given in the County budget as $2,568, not including the cost of fuel and vehicle maintenance ($16,000).

Strangely enough, the Sheriff’s Detention Personnel cost to the taxpayers in 2014 — when we were operating a fully functioning jail, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year — was $770,591. In 2017, when we were not operating a jail, the Sheriff’s Detention Personnel cost was budgeted at $777,374.

Apparently, it’s very expensive to operate a Detention department, even when you don’t have a Detention Center.

But back to the BOCC discussion on the morning of January 2, 2018.

Commissioner Maez:

“I guess it’s the opinion of some people that we need to form a committee. I’m not entirely sure if we need to. We have so much money invested in the plans that are done already. To plan a new building, we’re just throwing money out the window.”

Commissioner Michael Whiting:

“Let me make a suggestion, that we need to make some broad policy decisions. Something like, budget, scale, scope of the project.” Commissioner Whiting noted that his fellow commissioner, Steve Wadley, has recently been suggesting a down-sized Sheriff’s facility. Perhaps even a downsized jail?

Perhaps, start with a reasonable dollar figure, and size the building to fit the budget?

Of course, that’s not the way government normally works, even if the rest of us tend to adjust our expenses to fit our income. But Commissioner Whiting apparently felt a dollar figure would be a good starting point for any planning work.

“Before we engage a group of people, what are we engaging them to do?” he asked.

Commissioner Maez suggested that the committee’s key role might be to
“promote” the next ballot measure.

County Attorney Todd Starr:

“I think you’re making a big mistake if you form a committee and then confine them to a [pre-established] budget or building design. I think if you put the right people on there, they’re going to be smart enough to realize it’s a waste of money to ignore the work that’s already been done — they’re going to take advantage of the work that’s been done. If you ask them to start, with handcuffs on them already, they’re not going to be as engaged. They’re going to feel like, ‘Oh, we’re just supposed to rubber stamp something.’

“I don’t think that’s what we want.”

In fact, it appeared from the discussion that Commissioner Maez found the idea of rubber stamping to be rather attractive, and that the BOCC should gather a citizen’s group and let them figure out how to successfully promote the very same plan that lost at the polls — by a slender margin — last November.

Commissioner Wadley, leaning back in his chair, said he agreed with Commissioner Whiting: that the size of the project should be reduced and thus have a better chance of voter approval. He also suggested that the committee should not be handpicked by the BOCC, but should be open to all comers…

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.