County, court staffs discuss condition of courthouse

Several Archuleta County offices moved to their new home on Lewis Street this week, leaving the question of how the vacated courthouse space will be used and, specifically, how the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners will meet the needs of the Archuleta County Combined Courts.

With the remodel of the county’s new administration building at 398 Lewis St. complete, the commissioners’, administration, legal, finance and human resource offices will now be located in the building that formerly housed the Archuleta County Education Center. Too, the building will house the commissioners’ meeting room, where the board’s meetings will be held in the future.

Other county offices will remain in their current locations.

The county purchased the Lewis Street building last winter with the intent of moving the above offices to create additional space in the courthouse, partially due to a request from the courts for additional courtroom space.

The court’s request for additional space also included several other factors that were detailed in a July 2013 space study report prepared by the 6th Judicial District and Archuleta County Probation, including general maintenance, security, air quality and other concerns.

So, on Tuesday, Dec. 16, the day before the county’s offices were slated to move, the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners and certain county staff met with state- and local-level court staff members to discuss the vacated space.

Also present at the meeting were technical staff used by the courts in assessing the condition of the building.

The work session revolved largely around the current condition of the courthouse, what the county is doing to address issues with the courthouse, and how the courts and county can work together to improve the building.

Per Colorado statute, counties are required to provide courts with “adequate” space.

At the Tuesday work session, Colorado Courts Chief of Staff Mindy Masias gave a brief overview of the court’s position regarding the courthouse.

Of the 70 court locations in Colorado, Masias said, the Archuleta County Courthouse was the lowest-rated facility in terms of maintenance, upkeep, safety and security, which caught the attention of staff at the state-level.

The courthouse’s issues were first identified in the 2013 space study, Masias said, but, in the spring of 2014, employees made several complaints and workers’ compensation claims. Those claims led to hygiene and air quality tests, and to the discovery of structural, roof and mechanical issues. Because some of those claims remain open, little in terms of specifics regarding air quality was discussed at the meeting.

Too, Masias explained, the existing courtrooms are inadequate, with court staff having to leave through the same exits used by people appearing in court, a lack of maintenance and housekeeping, the building’s four entrances creating security issues, a lack of ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance, a lack of holding cells, inadequate restrooms, inadequate meeting space, queuing space and jury space, and more.

Masias said the roof over the building is not structurally sound enough to bear the weight of a snow load of 100 to 120 pounds per square foot.

Following the overview, Steve Wadley, Archuleta County commissioner, informed those present that the county has taken steps to shore up the roof, noting also that the commissioners use their meeting room an average of four days per month due to the courts using the space as an additional court room.

Wadley continued by stating that the courthouse was cramped for the county employees as well, but that the county was poor and had just gone through tough economic times, leaving it without the funds to build a new courthouse, which would be the optimal solution.

Masias acknowledged that the current BoCC inherited the building’s issues, but stated that the court “sometimes has to lean” on the statute requiring the county to provide adequate space. She continued that a minimum number of things needed to happen to make the courthouse adequate, and that the courts wanted to partner with the county to formulate a plan.

As the discussion continued, the commissioners repeatedly stated the economic reality of the county, with Wadley noting that citizens had voted down a ballot measure to provide additional road funding (which he noted is the citizens’ No. 1 concern), with Commissioner Clifford Lucero asking about possible financial help from the state.

Masias responded that the state was launching a new underfunded facilities grant program in 2015, but that she could not speak about how that funding would be doled out.

Wadley also reiterated that the county was working on the roof, had “addressed some other issues as expeditiously as possible” and was moving certain offices to create more space. He also suggested asking the state legislature for financial help.

County Administrator Bentley Henderson expounded upon Wadley’s comments, explaining that the county has taken “significant” steps and was “aggressively trying to address the needs” as county funds allow.

Among those things Henderson listed were spending $360,000 from the county’s general fund on the new administrative building, obtaining a grant from the Department of Local Affairs and matching  it with county funds to work on the roof of the courthouse, and increasing the county’s building repair and maintenance budget in 2015 to address additional issues.

Commissioner Michael Whiting voiced his support for partnering on the project, noting that there was no alternative. Whiting added that there would be no new facilities for a while for the county and called it an “unfunded mandate” to provide space for the courts.

He continued that the BoCC has consistently worked to fix its inherited problems, but that it needed a specific bottom line detailing the interim and long-term needs of the court.

Henderson also noted that he had met with the county’s other elected officials regarding how to best use and configure the vacant space and that the county was working with an architect on space planning for the courthouse, but that the county would likely only be able to provide about 3,000 of the 13,000 additional square feet requested by the courts.

The court’s report estimates that approximately 18,658 square feet are required to safely and adequately serve the public. Currently, the county provides about 6,000 square feet.

That space planning would look at the courthouse from a wider prospective — something those at the work session deemed necessary — and would identify possibilities such as moving county offices within the building to better position the courts, as well as addressing things like access to the building.

Lucero noted that health, safety and welfare were the charges of the BoCC and that the county will mitigate the issues “within reason.”

“These aren’t deaf ears,” Lucero said.

In further discussion on the matter, it was suggested that a working group could be formed to help determine how to best configure the existing space, but no final consensus was made at the work session.

The groups are scheduled to meet again on Feb. 17. Between now and then, court staff is expected to give county staff a list of short-term and long-term objectives and the county will work with its architect and formulate options for the space with the help of the court’s architect.

randi@pagosasun.com

This story was posted on December 18, 2014.