Letter to the Editor: Theos on saving the elementary school

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Dear Editor:
On Feb. 22, in a conversation about saving the old Meeker Elementary School with Ila Sturgeon, Bev Steinman, who wants to save the school, said, “I feel helpless.”
From that statement I clearly saw that what I have been perceiving as apathy among residents of the county was wrong. People are not apathetic. They feel helpless when trying to deal with their elected officials.
Think about that. Helpless. To get to that point, people in our county have watched projects in which they had no faith go forward, some at great financial cost to taxpayers based on the superior attitude of elected officials who continue to ignore the wisdom of the public.
A case in point: I began my quest to help save the historic 1939 school, never really doubting what I had been told on more than one occasion by our elected officials regarding the mandate that we have a new jail and new court.
As a part of this process I read the school EPA asbestos study and the structural engineering study that were commissioned by the Town of Meeker. I worked with Patrick Eidman of History Colorado to draft the grant application for an historic architectural assessment grant for the school that was submitted to the commissioners and only required a designation of a grant supervisor and an official signature to be submitted. Nothing came of this, not even a comment.
Representatives of History Colorado came to Meeker and toured the entire school as well as downtown Meeker (approving the nomination of downtown Meeker as a National Historic District). History Colorado gave both a thumbs-up for historic designation. All the county and the town have to do is officially apply.
Our old school is one of the top five buildings in Colorado deemed valuable and high priority for historic preservation and for repurposing for the economic benefit of the community and the state through heritage and agritourism.
I’ve become well versed in heritage tourism, a fast-growing industry in Colorado, and I can assure everyone that this county has history that converts to profitable heritage tourism, and our school as the flagship historic building of the downtown area is a big part of that history.
Back in May/June 2013, as part of my continued research into this plan for the county, I requested information regarding the justice center and what the county had been given by the original architects. I finally got a copy of the 2013 Archetype Report from the commissioners after waiting for about six months.
After reading this report, I requested from the county additional information to which the report referred, like drawings and costs, that had been given to the county in the past, to no avail. Despite the fact that it is public information, I was told that I needed to file a formal “open records act request” for anything having to do with the justice center project.
Not knowing exactly what the documents were titled would have given a no results response, so we contacted Archetype and they sent copies of all of their reports, which are public documents,from 2005 through 2013.
When I read this information, I was really confused. Every report said a new two-story justice center built on the courthouse square directly behind the courthouse was the least expensive of any other site.
In 2005, the Archetype cost estimate for design, implementation and construction of this two-story facility behind the courthouse (first floor for jail, law enforcement and communications center and second floor for court, court offices, judges and district attorney offices), remodeling all three floors of the existing courthouse, putting in geothermal HVAC and much more was $6,742,400.00.
If that figure were doubled today, it is still well below the $15 million the commissioners have set aside for this project.
The current plan proposed by the new architects in cooperation with county employees and elected officials to be built on the school site, closing Fifth Street from Main to Park and building a gazebo for which we are supposed to be excited, has been reported at workshop sessions as being well above the $15 million that has been set aside. And that does not include the courthouse remodeling costs.
Even though I now understand there is no mandate to build a new justice center, I’m not saying no to the entire thing, I’m just saying no to spending money we don’t have.
The county’s answer will be to get a DOLA grant to cover the excess, but we would still have to have the 50 percent match.
We are all aware the assessed valuations for property tax are falling, and, thus, revenue from energy corporation assessments, which pay for more than 83 percent of property taxes in Rio Blanco County, are dropping. Energy companies are cutting back and moving out. Who will be left holding the bag for this spending if the assessments drop? You guessed it. We, the helpless taxpayers.
All of us need to quit feeling helpless. 1) We have to ask why “they” tell us if we don’t build this center the state will come in and tell the county what to do at much greater cost? We were grandfathered in. No. 2) We have to ask, when, where and why the commissioners decided to spend more of our tax dollars to build this jail/court on the school site as opposed to the less expensive courthouse square site? Where are the minutes of the meeting where this was decided and when was it decided? 3) We have to ask why, when the county planning commission policy, approved by the commissioners, is to protect historic buildings and sites in the county, are they choosing to destroy the largest, high-profile historic building located right in the middle of the historic downtown area?
No one should feel helpless. The folks in Pueblo and Colorado Springs who were successful in their recall campaigns over gun control, said “No more; you were elected to represent your constituents not yourselves,” and it worked.
Get yourselves to one or both of the public meetings the commissioners have promised to hold; one in Rangely and one in Meeker, reportedly on March 11 and 12. Watch the Herald Times and/or check the county website for exact dates, times and locations. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and say “No more.”
Connie Theos