We observed with great interest this week District Court Judge Richard Doucette's order requiring Routt County to provide a "safe and adequate facility for its courts" within three years.
The judge is correct. The current court facility in the historic downtown courthouse is woefully undersized and potentially unsafe to litigants and staff. But the implications of the order he issued on Tuesday may not be as clear as they appear on the surface.
Everyone who has lived in Routt County for eight weeks or longer knows that on Election Day, the voters turned down the county's request that it be allowed to raise taxes to build a new $17.2 million court facility. It would have been built across Sixth Street from the courthouse. The proposed 1.3 mill property tax increase would have also funded a parking garage behind the existing courthouse. Of the voters who turned out at the polls, 59 percent said "no" to the plan.
The judge has given the county until Jan. 1, 2006, to deliver the new courthouse. It would be reasonable to infer from the fact that the commissioners have already appealed to the judge for an extension that they do not welcome his order. We think the opposite could be true. We think the judge's ruling is sympathetic to the county's efforts to get the new court facility built. The intended recipients of the message are the voters, not the county commissioners.
However, we can conceive of a scenario under which the commissioners might find the ruling distasteful. Judge's order or not, the county is bound by the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (an amendment to the state Constitution) to secure the approval of the voters before raising taxes. And last time we checked, judges did not have the authority to compel the voters to check the box next to the word "yes" (we are not suggesting that is Doucette's intent).
Here's the rub -- the county has sufficient funds built up in reserve to build the courthouse without the need for a task force. The county made a wise move politically when it informed the voters last fall that it would fund a significant portion of the court facility construction out of those reserves.
We wonder if the judge's order could have the net effect, unintended or otherwise, of requiring the county to deplete its reserves to complete the new court facility on time.
It may well be that it would be unwise to fund the new court facility entirely out of reserves. But the county could find itself in a jam if it goes to the voters once more, gets rejected once more and finds itself coming up against Doucette's order.
History tells us that when local voters say "no" to a ballot question, the rejection isn't necessarily absolute. One need look no further back than the late '90s, when the school district floated a plan to build a new high school, to confirm this. The Steamboat Springs School District asked the voters to help it build a brand new high school somewhere on the edge of the city, and that plan got spanked. But the school district was able to engage the community in a lengthy exchange of ideas that resulted in a major high school remodeling and expansion on the present site on the east side of Old Town.
Our "new" high school is a spectacular success.
Even though courtrooms don't have the appeal of classrooms, the county can experience a similar success. The committee that worked on the court facility proposal and the commissioners are wisely conducting a postmortem in the form of a poll to learn why voters rejected the old plan.
For the sake of the people who spend their working lives in the cramped facilities in the old court offices, we hope they heed it well. It could be a mistake to presume the judge's order alone will deliver the much-needed new building.