Routt County officials, concerned about space and security in the current courthouse, are developing plans for a new building. We asked 14th Judicial District Administrator Evan Herman, who's in charge of the courts inside the courthouse in downtown Steamboat Springs, whether building a new courthouse is a necessary and wise use of public money.
Q. Why, in addition to the current courthouse and adjacent annex in downtown Steamboat Springs, is a new courthouse building necessary for Routt County?
A. Deficiencies associated with the current facility fall into four main categories: space, configuration, security and access for the disabled.
The Routt County Combined Court has between 4,000 and 4,500 new cases filed every year. These cases are heard by three judges and one water referee, with support from a clerical staff of 14. Space occupied by the Combined Court Clerk's Office is dramatically undersized, with work conditions that are extremely difficult. The clerk's office interacts with the public at a service window that is located at the top of a stairwell, creating safety and liability concerns. In our efforts to meet statutory time requirements for the resolution of cases, it is not unusual for three court proceedings to be scheduled with only two courtrooms available. We have conducted court in small conference rooms, in hallways, at the community college, in nearly every conference room in town, at the Steamboat Airport terminal and in a local movie theater.
The lack of adequate circulation patterns and adjacencies requires that parties, attorneys, witnesses, jurors, defendants in the custody of the sheriff, judges and court staff all use the same narrow hallway to get from one room to another. We have had:
Witnesses in criminal cases waiting in the same confined area as the relatives of the defendant;
Jurors passing directly by defendants and the family of defendants;
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Parties in contentious divorces, some of which involve abuse and violence, waiting side by side in this extremely confined space; and
Juveniles in neglect cases forced to wait in the same area in which prisoners in the custody of the sheriff must pass.
It is important to remember that the vast majority of our cases are non-criminal in nature. That means anyone in court in conjunction with a traffic ticket, a small claims case, an adoption or a jury summons is also subject to these conditions. I have visited many court facilities in Colorado and around the country; I have seen few that are as seriously deficient as Routt County's.
Q. Where would the new building be built?
A. Two options for the location of a new judicial facility are being considered. The county has acquired four lots between Sixth and Seventh streets, on the south side of Oak Street. An alternate site is immediately adjacent to the existing courthouse and annex in what is currently the parking area. Both of these options will be thoroughly evaluated before a decision is made.
Q. How much would a new courthouse cost to build and what would annual operational costs be?
A. We are in the very preliminary stages of this project. The county just finalized a contract with an architect this week. Work to be completed in the months ahead include a detailed space needs evaluation, site evaluation and conceptual design. Until these processes have been completed, no reliable information about the cost of this project, construction or operational, can be provided.
Q. The concerns about space and security at the courthouse are not new. How long ago were problems identified and since that time, how much money has been set aside to construct a new building?
A. Concerns associated with the Routt County Combined Court facilities have been discussed for at least as long as I have been in this position, 13 years. Over time, however, our concerns have grown and broadened as the world around us has changed and the facility deficiencies described in the answer to the first question have worsened. The occurrence of violence in court facilities has increased dramatically over the past 10 to 15 years. The lack of appropriate waiting areas is not only uncomfortable for those waiting to testify in court, it also creates additional security concerns. Further, state statute requires victim and witness waiting areas that do not exist in our current facility. As the complexity of our work has increased, so, too, has the need for additional staff and space. The Americans with Disabilities Act has reinforced concerns associated with access to this facility for
An initial study of court facilities was conducted in 1994 and 1995 by the SGS Group at a cost of about $25,000. The county has paid about $1 million in the acquisition of the Oak Street property noted in my response to the second question. To the best of my knowledge, the county has also budgeted about $500,000 for architectural services in 2001.
Q. How would Routt County pay for a new courthouse building and when does the county want to build it?
A. I believe that the Routt County Commissioners recognize the seriousness of our facility-related problems and are moving forward with this project as quickly as is prudently possible. Obviously, a project of this nature requires a great deal of planning in many areas.
A number of financial options are available to the county. It is my understanding that the preferred option is a general obligation bond issue that will require the approval of the electorate. Other financing options may be needed in concert with this option. These are matters that have not yet been finalized.
The earliest that a bond issue would be presented for voter approval is November of 2001. Whether or not we will be ready to go forward on this timetable is uncertain at this time.
Q. What would happen to the old courthouse building and courthouse annex if a new building were constructed?
A. Space currently occupied by the court will be used for other county functions. Many county offices and departments are overcrowded and have a need for additional space. In fact, the county currently spends about $50,000 per year for the rental of office space in non-county-owned buildings. Exactly which offices or departments might occupy this space has yet to be determined.