John de Wardt: Unnecessary financial burdens
March 20, 2004
The recent actions by the Routt County commissioners seem to have exposed us to significant financial burdens without any clear logic.
In 1993, the county formed a working committee to develop a plan to expand the court facilities. This group worked through 2001, reporting often to the commissioners and their representatives. The plan they developed envisaged expanding the court facilities adjacent to the current downtown courthouse. As a result of this, the commissioners purchased four properties bounded by Sixth and Oak streets for $1.5 million.
One of the home sites was obtained through a process called eminent domain whereby the commissioners forced the owner to sell for a predetermined price because the property was required for a public project. A significant grant ($600,000) was obtained by the county to purchase the VNA headquarters and relocate it to the Medical Center.
An architectural firm was hired and a design developed for a cost of $580,000. This design carried with it a price tag of $17 million. The voters turned down a request to bond in the amount of $10.1 million in November 2002. The design included a new building to accommodate the planned courts; it was designed for four courtrooms with room to expand to six.
This process, from the formation of the Routt County Court Facilities Review Committee to voter rejection of the tax increase, took nine years and involved hundreds of people.
After the bond rejection, the commissioners appear to have taken full control of the process and undertaken the following steps:
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n decided to build the judicial facility next to the jail,
n purchased additional property adjacent to the jail,
n hired an architectural firm to devise a new design,
n applied to the Army Corps of Engineers for a permit to fill a wetland, and
n opted to use certificates of participation, a method of debt financing that does not require voter approval but will need to be repaid from the coffers of the county, which ultimately means the pockets of the residents because the county is funded by residents’ taxes.
The commissioners accomplished all this in less than six months with only ad hoc resident involvement and, apparently, without any involvement with their Planning Department.
The bills are beginning to grow. There is the lost investment in the downtown location, including the $1.5 million to purchase property adjacent to the current courthouse, the $600,000 to move the VNA and the $580,000 in architect fees. Next, there is the money spent on the site west of town, including the $550,000 for the land purchase and the $1 million estimate for architect fees.
The move to the jail location creates costs for things that had been paid for in the downtown location to the tune of $1,644,000. Why?
The proposed downtown design definitely was an expensive proposition; however, a revised proposal can be made at a much lower cost if the county and city are willing to work together.
The commissioners quickly switched to the jail location, and argued in their application to the Corps of Engineers that there is no alternative location; hence they must fill in the wetlands. But we know that there is a downtown location — one that the commissioners once supported.
The need for a courthouse has been driven by a court order from recently retired Judge Doucette. On the one hand, the commissioners seem to be rushing through the construction process based on the court order (even to the point that they will ignore the City Council if it rejects the jail location), while on the other hand, they are appealing the court order. This court order may not be enforceable, thus supporting the commissioners’ appeal, which could remove the cause of their haste.
The commissioners took it upon themselves to charge ahead with only cursory public input. This could end up with further disinvestment in the downtown campus and the displacement of all county offices to the jail site west of town. This would be a major squandering of nearly 100 years of public investment.
It would benefit us all to ask the commissioners to explain their rationale for wasting the investment in the downtown location, ignoring the Community Plan and public input, and creating a financial burden on the taxpayers without our approval.