In the debate over a new judicial facility for Routt County, some argue against spending so much money on a facility most residents will rarely use.
Judge Richard Doucette rightly noted that's a sad comment on our society. One of the cornerstones of our democracy is its judicial system, and a key component of that system is having an adequate facility where residents can go to resolve disputes, Doucette said. That our focus is on how often we use it, rather than its availability, indicates that perhaps we have taken the system for granted.
The current courthouse was built in 1923 when Routt County handled 216 civil and criminal cases. Last year, some 4,600 cases passed through the courthouse.
The state mandates that any county with three judges provide 33,200 square feet of court space our courthouse has 11,200 square feet. Court cases and hearings have been held at the high school, the newspaper and other sites because of the lack of space. Clerk personnel are crammed into tight quarters with desks in passageways and records dangling overhead. There are very real safety issues, foremost being that the courthouse is not designed to adequately separate defendants, jurors, witnesses and spectators.
Anyone who has been in the courthouse lately knows it is outdated. There really should not be much debate about the need for a new facility.
The question then is how best to fulfill that need. The county has proposed a $17.2 million package that includes a $1.5 million land purchase, a 52,000-square-foot, $12.8 million building and a 127-space, $2.9 million parking garage.
The county will contribute about $7 million in reserve funds to the project. Taxpayers will be asked to raise taxes 1.3 mills to pay for about $10.1 million in bonds for the project. That will cost the owners of a $300,000 home about $36 more per year in taxes for 20 years. A $1 million commercial business will pay about $380 more per year.
Some argue the facility is too big and too expensive. Some argue the parking facility will be unsightly and encourage unnecessary traffic downtown. Some argue the county's reserve balance of more than $18 million is too large and more should be used on the new courthouse. Some argue the county is spending too much time on this project while neglecting higher priorities such as Yampa Valley Regional Airport.
These are fair criticisms. But give the county credit the package before voters came after more than a year's worth of public meetings to explain the need for a new facility and gather input on its design. The result is a project that is sensitive to the downtown area, is large enough to anticipate future needs and addresses parking concerns.
In our opinion, the building design and project costs are reasonable, and we should be thankful the county built enough in reserves to fund a third of the project. And while the airport is in woeful shape, the county's financial commitment to the airport can't increase until a new courthouse is built.
Given the push from the state and the sad condition of the existing facility, the county has to make the new courthouse its top priority. If Referendum 1A fails, that priority won't change the county will have to put another package together and come back to voters.
That should not happen. A new judicial facility is long overdue and voters should approve Referendum 1A.