Behind the Headlines

Justifying a new judicial complex

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Q. How old is the current facility, and why does the county need a new one? Along with the court staff, what other departments would benefit by having a new facility and why?

A. The Routt County Courthouse was built in 1923 with the top floor dedicated to the court; we have continued to occupy the same space for the past 79 years. In 1923 we had just more than 200 new cases filed per year; today we have between 4,000 and 4,500 new cases filed every year. By the year 2020, the judicial branch projects that we will have about 7,000 new cases filed each year. Our best estimate regarding staffing in 1923 was two very part-time judges and a support staff of three. Our current staff consists of thee judges, a water referee, a court facilitator and a support staff of 16. We have simply out-grown our current faculty.

Deficiencies associated with the current facility fall into four main categories: space, configuration, security and access for the disabled. Space occupied by the Combined Court Clerk's Office is dramatically undersized, with work conditions that are extremely cramped. 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 requirement 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 Springs 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 pass directly by defendants and the family of defendants. Parties in contentious divorces, some of which involve abuse and violence, wait side by side. Juveniles in neglect cases are 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.

The Probation Department and the District Attorney's Office will also be located in the new facility; both will benefit from the security provisions provided as well as the additional space.

Space vacated by the court and DA will be remodeled and used for a variety of other county offices that are extremely overcrowded. In addition, a number of county offices now located in rental space outside of the courthouse and annex (including the Judicial District's Probation Department) will be returned, saving the county about $70,000 per year in rental costs. The District Court courtroom, which has historical value, will for the most part be maintained in its current configuration for use as a meeting/hearing room.

Q. What is the estimated cost of the project, and what funding sources is the county examining? How much are taxpayers going to have to pay for the project?

A. Until final decisions are made regarding design and building materials, it is impossible to determine the cost of this project. The county is working with the city to finalize design features; upon completion, the architectural firm hired by the county to design the building will conduct detailed cost-engineering that will provide us with a cost estimate. This information should be available within the next several months. The county is studying a variety of financial options; most likely, some combination of general obligation bonds and revenue bonds will be identified. A bond issue will then be drafted and presented to the voters of Routt County in November.

Q. How critical is it for Routt County to work with the city of Steamboat Springs and downtown businesses in making sure the facility fits in with the area? What obstacles, if any, need to be overcome with the potential closing of Sixth Street?

A. The county believes that it is extremely important to work closely with the city, downtown businesses and the community as a whole in the development of this project. Our goal is to design a building that is respectful of the neighborhood, efficient in the use of space, prudent in the use of public funds, projects the dignity of the court and will last us well into the future. The closure of Sixth Street between Oak Street and the alley has not been taken lightly. A detailed traffic impact study was conducted by an independent firm working for the city, which specializes in this type of work. It has concluded that this street closure will have very little impact on traffic patterns and will not result in increased congestion. The county is working with the city to address emergency vehicle access issues; these issues appear to be easily resolvable.

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