RBC I County commissioners are keeping their options open.
When it comes to selecting a site for a proposed justice center — providing expanded space for courtrooms and a jail — commissioners are still considering different locations.
And they’re in no hurry to make a decision.
“We want to go slow with this, because we want to make the right site selection,” said Ken Parsons, commissioner from Rangely.
Inadequate courtroom space as well as security concerns and housing limitations with the current 18-bed jail have prompted commissioners to propose building a new justice center, which would allow for expansion of the county’s combined court and law enforcement facilities.
“We need to move forward on this project, or we could end up with the state mandating we do something,” said Commissioner Kai Turner of Meeker.
“They can assess a mill levy to us (to build a new courthouse and detention center),” said Commission Chairman Joe Collins.
Commissioners have identified four possible sites in and around Meeker for the justice center, and there’s talk Rangely may make a push to have the facility moved to the west end of the county.
Initially, the commissioners’ No. 1 site choice for the justice center was the downtown location of the current Meeker Elementary School, but neighborhood residents have organized to oppose the idea.
“It was, personally, my No. 1 choice,” Chairman Collins said Monday. “But it’s obvious to me there’s another agenda out there right now. So we may have to compromise. We’re just kind of in limbo right now.”
Commissioner Parsons added, “We’re not closing that option out, but, certainly, we’ll keep evaluating these (options) and see what the town of Rangely does.”
Rangely would have at least two possible sites for a justice center, including the old Parkview Elementary building, which was closed by the school district last spring to save money, and the former Early Education Center, which is also owned by the school district, with most of its space currently leased to businesses.
Rangely Town Manager Peter Brixius said the idea of locating the justice center on the west end of the county has been discussed.
“It’s been talked about,” Brixius said, adding if a formal proposal was made it would be in cooperation with the county and the town of Meeker.
“We’re trying to get away from the tug of war in the county,” Brixius said. “We have a good relationship with (the town of) Meeker.”
Of the Early Education Center site, just west of downtown Rangely on Highway 64, Brixius said, “It’s only conjecture, but that’s a good, viable site. It would need to be modified, obviously, but it’s a great location and it’s a nice facility.”
If the justice center was located in Rangely, what would that do to the county seat designation?
“That would simply be an alternative site for the county court and detention center,” Parsons said. “The county seat would remain (in Meeker), along with county offices and administration.”
Commission Chairman Collins said, “Obviously, there would have to be a lot of personnel that would have to transfer to Rangely (if the justice center was located there). Sheriff’s (Office), the jail, court system, the whole thing would have to transfer down there. That’s the economics.”
In Meeker, the other site options commissioners are considering include: Building an addition on to the current courthouse in downtown Meeker; the former Bureau of Land Management building west of Meeker, which now belongs to the school district; and a piece of land east of town called the Terrace site.
“We received a letter from the (Meeker) School District saying they would work with us in any way they could with the BLM site,” Collins said.
Commissioners have estimated the construction costs of building a justice center in the $10 million to $12 million range.
“It depends on the site,” Collins said. “The school district offered us the BLM site, but there are some real economic negatives down there. They are trying to cooperate with us, and that’s a plus. We appreciate the school (district) trying to help us.”
The state of the economy will have an impact on how and when the county moves forward with plans for the proposed justice center.
“We want to go slow with this, because we want to make the right site selection, “Parsons said. “Two, we want to make sure we get the right plan put together. We’ve been told there’s (funding) available through the state, and even though construction costs are relatively low right now, the state may not be in much financial shape to help us right now. So, I think a lot of that depends on the availability of financing. And we want to wait until our taxpayers have recovered from this recession before we’re encumbered with something like a bond.”
With opposition to the elementary school site in Meeker, commissioners, who still like the idea of a downtown location for the justice center, because of proximity to other county offices, may be leaning toward adding on to the current courthouse on the town square.
“The elementary school would have been my first choice,” Parsons said. “Now, from an economic point of view, I’d have to say the courthouse looks the best of the four (Meeker sites).”
Of the four proposed justice center locations in Meeker, the current courthouse location would have the lowest site development costs.
“It certainly opens some different options that are very appealing,” Commissioner Turner said. “The not appealing part of it is the courthouse lawn. I would really hate to see us have to do anything to remove the courthouse lawn.”
The courthouse lawn — a popular location for community events — would be utilized for parking, if the justice center was added on to the site.
“Obviously, it’s going to change the whole atmosphere of the downtown, if we have to put the parking lot out front and destroy the lawn, which is not something we really want to do,” Collins said.
Turner added: “Even though we would save money in the phased construction (of the courthouse site), that leaves somebody with a pretty substantial bill to build (on the grade school site).”
Other uses have been mentioned for the old grade school, which some would like to see preserved for its historical significance and central location, but no formal plan has been presented to the Meeker Town Board. The school structure and property will revert back to the town, once the school district, which has been leasing space from the town, vacates the building at the end of the school year.
The issue of maintaining the economic vitality of Meeker’s retail district has been a hot topic of discussion, with business owners being divided over what impact a justice center would have on the downtown area.
“There’s some concern about the integrity of downtown, and I feel strongly about that, but if we go ahead and do the wraparound of the courthouse and do away with the front lawn and the trees, that’s going to change the integrity of downtown,” Collins said. “I think we can do whatever we feel is prudent, as far as the courthouse is concerned, but it is still part of downtown Meeker and we don’t want to put up some kind of a god-awful monster there.”
When the county had expressed an interest in building a justice center on the grade school site, the town indicated it would put the matter to a public vote. That may not be necessary now, commissioners said.
“If it’s within the city limits, I can see them having a vote,” Parsons said.
Commissioner Turner added, “If we were going to build something on the grade school site, it would require a vote to give us that land. But if we’re no longer wanting to do that, I don’t know that there’s a reason to have a vote.”
As far as the county’s timetable for the justice center project, for now, commissioners are focusing their attention on the site selection.
“I would hope sometime by mid-year next year we would have gotten a site, and then once we have a site we can concentrate more on (the design),” Parsons said. “This is really just a site discussion we’re having right now. I think construction is years down the road.”
Even though important decisions are yet to be made and actual construction of the justice center may be a long way off, once the project is completed, Chairman Collins hopes residents will be satisfied with the result.
“Our desire is to do something the community will be proud of,” Collins said. “And that years down the road, we can say this was the right decision.”