PAGOSA SPRINGS – Despite numerous illnesses, Archuleta County commissioners said Friday the county courthouse presents no health hazard to employees or the visiting public.
In a resolution passed 3-0, commissioners declared the building safe for occupancy based on comprehensive air-quality tests. It goes on to say the county won’t pay any expenses incurred by public agencies that seek alternative accommodations beyond Oct. 31.
The decision came five weeks after the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office and the 6th Judicial District court services vacated the building for environmental health concerns.
In recent years, deputies, jurors and judicial employees have complained of headaches, eye irritation, sinus issues, coughing and fatigue after working in the courthouse.
More recently, two deputies passed out inside the building, and three deputies have been admitted to intensive-care units at hospitals.
District Judge Jeffrey Wilson ordered court and probation offices closed Sept. 7 based on “credible, but not yet scientifically confirmed evidence of noxious substances” within the courthouse.
The Sheriff’s Office vacated the building about the same time.
The county Assessor’s Office and Clerk and Recorder’s Office remain in the building, but they occupy a different part of the courthouse that has presented fewer health concerns. Several of those employees expressed concern Friday that county commissioners are not doing more to address undeniable health threats.
“There’s something wrong with that building, and they know it,” said County Clerk June Madrid. “We’ve all been in this courthouse long enough to know something’s wrong.”
The Pagosa Springs Fire Department recommended hydrogen-sulphide detectors be installed about a year ago, but no detectors were ever installed, she said. The county has since purchased detectors, but they remained in a box in the basement of the courthouse as of Friday, Madrid said.
“It’s dividing us, and I don’t like to see that,” she said of the whole situation. “It’s elected officials against elected officials.”
In a four-page letter sent Sept. 26 to commissioners, Wilson detailed the health concerns and asked county commissioners to begin an immediate search for temporary facilities to house judicial operations, including a courtroom. He asked for a reply by 5 p.m. Oct. 6, but as of Tuesday, commissioners had not responded.
At the beginning of an hourlong meeting Friday morning, Commissioner Steve Wadley said he won’t be told by anyone how to spend taxpayer money.
“We realize that things come up, we realize that we have to pick up a pencil and write a check, but we are the ones – the three of us – who decide how money is spent,” he said.
At least a half dozen people, including county officials, spoke out against the resolution, saying county commissioners have ignored health threats over the years, have not done sufficient testing this time around and don’t seem to care about employees’ health.
Commissioners said they’re concerned about employees’ health, but it’s only a guess that it’s related to conditions at the courthouse.
“I reject the idea that the BOCC doesn’t care or is callous or is immune to the human element here,” Commissioner Michael Whiting said. “... People are getting sick, that’s my main concern. ... If it weren’t for these tests, I wouldn’t feel comfortable letting anyone back into the building.”
He said the issue has been politicized.
“I’m disappointed in us. We’re better than this, and I’m going to try to be better than this starting with this decision this morning.”
In a letter, Sheriff Rich Valdez said the county’s 4½-hour air-quality test doesn’t give a true and accurate representation of the air quality in the building.
“Had this been the first occurrence of this nature, I would better understand the commissioners’ decision to conduct minimal testing, however, this is the third time we’ve had to evacuate due to environmental and air-quality concerns.”
He added: “Until I know for certain, I cannot put my staff or any inmates back in the building that could pose a possible health risk.”
The judicial department contracted for its own environmental review. A final report is expected by Oct. 31. In the meantime, the courts have no plans to return to the courthouse, said Rob McCallum, spokesman for the state judicial department in Denver.
“We will continue limited operations in Pagosa Springs and will hold hearings in Durango,” he said. “During this time, we will also continue to identify potential locations for court and probation operations that offer long-term solutions.”
firstname.lastname@example.orgAn earlier version of this story had incorrect information in a photo description. A bucket in the ceiling above the Archuleta County Assessor’s Office used to collect condensation from an air-conditioning drain pipe, not from a leaky pipe. The bucket no longer collects moisture, because the air-conditioning unit has been turned off.