Nov. election could impact justice center

RBC — Pat Hooker, Rio Blanco County administrator, will be keenly interested in the results of the Nov. 4 Meeker school bond election.
There’s a lot riding on the outcome, and not just for the school district.
The election could make a statement about the mood of voters to support future capital projects, Hooker said, and the outcome of the current Meeker Elementary School may well determine the location of a new justice center. The county has expressed an interest in the school site, located across from the courthouse.
“I think it (the election) will give us some idea of the climate on financing this facility,” Hooker said of gauging the public’s support of a new justice center. “Obviously, we may have to look for other alternative sources, whether that be grants, or go through DOLA (Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs), without having to go back to the citizens of the county. But that’s something we will have to get the citizens’ input on.”
When considering funding to build a new justice center, the county will first explore other options before asking voters to support it financially.
“In discussing with the commissioners all of the county’s infrastructure needs we’re currently facing and will be facing in the months and years to come, I think we’re all in agreement that we’re going to pursue whatever grants and alternative sources of funding may be available to the county before we ask the voters to financially support these needs,” Hooker said. “Thus the reason why we’re pursuing the preliminary design work is so we’ll have a better idea of what we need, potential costs, etc. Then we’ll be able to see what sources of funding are available for us to go after. Once that’s done, we’ll be able to specifically explain to the citizens of the county what we need from them, if anything, in terms of funding. Then we’ll have to decide the best method … bond issues, mill levy increases, etc. It’s just too early to know.”
As an initial step in the process, county commissioners last week approved a contract for services with Archetype Design Group of Leawood, Kan., in the amount of $44,625 to cover the preliminary design of a new justice center. Hooker solicited input from law enforcement and court services as far as their space needs.
“We’ve put together a laundry list of space we will need,” Hooker said. “So what we’ve asked Archetype to do is put some square footage to these rooms, to give us an idea of how much square footage we’re looking at, we can start to figure out what this thing will cost us. And, at the same time, give us a preliminary design, based on room needs. The way they design jails anymore is in a pod design, similar to what the (new) school is doing, where you have your core facility, and then as the need expands, you can add a module or a pod to the existing space.”
While taking this preliminary step, there are still plenty of questions about a new justice center. Questions such as where the new facility would be located? How much it will cost to build? And when it will be built?
One thing is certain, Hooker said, and that is the need for a new justice center, which would accommodate expanded court services as well as provide additional jail space.
“When and where we will build this new justice center, we don’t know,” Hooker said. “But we know we need it. There’s no question about that.”
The increasing demands of law enforcement and court services have outgrown current facilities, Hooker said.
“As the criminal caseload grows and the population grows and more and more people are arrested and incarcerated, there really isn’t room to expand,” Hooker said. “Right now, we’re spending significant dollars transporting inmates to other jails, because we’re full or we don’t have room to hold them. That’s a significant cost to the county.”
The county currently has an 18-bed jail on the third floor of the courthouse. Hooker said a new justice center would have a 52- or 55-bed jail, plus two court rooms, instead of one, which the county has now.
“We’ve asked Archetype to give us a preliminary design based on courtroom needs and attaching that to a 52- or 55-bed county jail facility,” Hooker said. “We’ve asked them to have that to us by the end of January. Once we have the square footage we can start talking with contractors and we can start looking at site locations and various funding options.”
When the county began looking into a new justice center in 2005, the projected construction cost was $4.2 million. Hooker knows it will be much higher now.
“We know, since then, construction costs have gone up significantly,” Hooker said. “As soon as they come back with a preliminary design and square footage, that’s when we can start talking with contractors to see what it will cost in today’s dollars.”
County Attorney Kent Borchard agreed.
“The architect will meet with all of the various users to determine their needs to come up with a basic floor plan,” Borchard said. “Then once we have that in hand, then the commissioners can make a decision on possible locations, and then get a more accurate number on what it will cost.”
Until the county knows the size of a new justice center, based on the preliminary design, it won’t know whether the location of the current elementary school would be suitable.
“We don’t know if a new justice center would fit on that block,” Hooker said. “If it doesn’t fit, the town (which owns the land) would have to figure out another use for that. If (the new justice center) would fit there, then we would have to work with the town to come up with the best possible use for that block.”
The town is waiting to see what happens with the school election.
“It’s hard to say, until we really know what is happening (with the election),” said Town Administrator Sharon Day. “The (town) board will be open to exploring possibilities. At this point, the board just wants to make sure the community understands they will be open to any opportunities.”
Expanding the current jail is not an option, Hooker said.
“There really isn’t room to expand,” Hooker said. “We can’t go in and do any kind of remodel because it would fall under the new codes, and that would mean a major remodeling to the current jail. If we can get a new justice center, remodel the third floor and first floor (of the courthouse) and make them into administrative office space for other county needs, we could move out of this building and it would be more cost effective.”
The county currently leases space for its administrative offices from Jerry Belland, who owns the building on Highway 13, just east of Watt’s Ranch Market.
Whatever direction the county decides to take, Hooker knows it will have to make its case to the public.
“We will have to explain to the citizens of Rio Blanco County why it’s important that we need to build a new justice center,” Hooker said. “I think an elementary school, in people’s minds, is different from a new justice center. It’s hard to judge how people are going to view that. I think both are needed, both are important.”