Court advocates still believe in project

County will look at why voters rejected new facility and what can be done to approve plan

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— The space constraints and unsafe conditions that beleaguer the Routt County Courthouse didn't disappear when 59 percent of county voters said "no" to building new court facilities. Referendum 1A, a ballot measure that asked taxpayers to support a $17.2 million judicial facility, failed at the polls last Tuesday.

It's not that supporters of the project didn't try hard enough to woo voters.

"We just didn't win," said Ben Beall, co-chairman of Routt Citizens for Safe Courts, a political action committee that spent more than $11,000 to educate residents on the courthouse initiative.

"But it's not going away. It was just one of those things that couldn't be done at this time."

Those who ardently backed the need for more court space are stepping back for a while.

That doesn't mean they are abandoning their message that the need is real.

Judges still preside over crowded courtrooms.

Defendants in the custody of the Routt County Sheriff's Office still pass witnesses, jury members, victims or attorneys in the narrow hallway that separates the county and district courtrooms.

"We are living in a 1923 facility," Routt County Judge James Garrecht said. "The courts have been pretty patient."

But the patience of the chief judge in 14th Judicial District may be wearing thin.

A court order in the 1980s forced the vacation of the Routt County Jail from the basement of the courthouse and into a new facility in west Steamboat Springs.

The court-ordered construction of new judicial facilities is a real possibility, Chief District Judge Richard Doucette said.

State standards mandate that any courthouse in the state with three judges provide at least 33,200 square feet.

The current courthouse holds two district court judges and one county judge in 11,200 square feet.

Now that the voters have rejected subsidizing the project, Doucette is looking at the steps he must take should he order the county to construct adequate court facilities.

"I am certainly thinking about it," he said.

Garrecht stressed that voters did not vote against building new court facilities. They voted against the way the county wanted to fund it, he said.

But state law, he said, requires counties to provide an adequate, safe court facility.

"The public cannot vote to disregard state law," Garrecht said.

Supporters of Referendum 1A will meet next week to consider the factors behind voters' decision to deny the courthouse initiative.

"There's all sorts of reasons," Routt County Commissioner Dan Ellison said.

The county may conduct a post-election survey to identify some of those reasons.

Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said she and the other commissioners are aware of a few concerns that have resonated with voters since the launch of the Referendum 1A campaign.

The proposed 1.3 mill property tax increase likely played a large role in voters' decision-making, she said.

Other key components of the $17.2 million project, such as the parking garage, its price tag and the size and location of the facility, must be addressed.

And the county must determine the likelihood of a courthouse initiative passing should it go back to the voters in the future.

Unlike the proposed water district consolidation, no one formed to protest the courthouse measure.

"I never heard anyone stand up and say they didn't like it," Hayden Mayor Chuck Grobe said.

Grobe tried to drum up support for the new court facility in Hayden, but opposition to Referendum 1A rang loud and clear on Election Day.

Although the public had many opportunities to speak with county officials about the proposed court facility, Stahoviak thinks dialogue with the community was lacking prior to the election.

She applauded Routt Citizens for Safe Courts for its visibility in the community in the weeks and months prior to the election.

"They did an excellent job of campaigning for this issue and trying to educate the voters about what we are doing," she said. "They did everything they could."

Routt County did its part, too, by investing in the project to the tune of more than half a million dollars.

About $575,000 was spent in the process of getting the proposed court facility on the ballot.

"You don't want to throw away the money we spent on it," project coordinator Tim Winter said. "But we don't want it to be a project the community doesn't really like."

Traffic studies and building plans could be awash if the project's site, size and design are altered.

"The vote didn't tell us what the community didn't like about this project," Winter said.

"We can't just take this building and plop it down somewhere else."

Advocates of new court facilities said they still believe in the validity of the project.

And despite its defeat at the ballot box, they recognize the silver lining behind the courthouse initiative's defeat.

"Whatever happens will be done differently," Beall said. "Once you lose, then you have to figure out what's next."

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