A district court judge said thanks but no thanks to Archuleta County commissioners’ offer to use their administration building in lieu of the county courthouse, which the judicial branch vacated in September for health concerns.
The administration building at 398 Lewis St. has one unisex bathroom, lacks necessary security requirements and is too close to a middle school, Chief District Judge Jeffrey Wilson wrote in a letter this week to commissioners.
The building also is too small to accommodate court, probation and court clerk operations, he said.
“The last time the BOCC (board of county commissioners) building was used as a temporary courthouse, the Archuleta School District was extremely upset at the temporary location of the court facility,” Wilson wrote. “Whatever building we use as a temporary court facility, our use of such facility will last for at least several years until a permanent facility can be devised.”
County commissioners and the 6th Judicial District appear deadlocked over where to locate judicial operations.
Archuleta County, which is statutorily required to provide adequate space for judicial operations, has said the courthouse meets requirements for the time being and presents no credible health threat. But the judicial branch points to anecdotal evidence in which several employees have fallen ill while working at the courthouse, as well as a recent air-quality assessment that recommends employees avoid returning to the courthouse.
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.
An air-quality test contracted by Archuleta County found no hazard inside the building. A separate environmental test paid for by the judicial branch also found air-quality levels to be within acceptable standards, yet it recommends employees avoid returning to the building.
John Gossett, project manager for the judicial branch’s study, declined to comment Friday about his findings and recommendations, saying he would need permission from the state courts to respond. A spokesman for the state judicial branch did not set up an interview with Gossett.
Commissioners met face to face with the judge this week to discuss options.
“The courts have made it plain to us that it doesn’t matter what the air-quality standards end up being,” said Commissioner Steve Wadley.
He expressed frustration in general about some of Archuleta County’s deteriorating facilities.
In addition to a dilapidated courthouse, a flood in April 2015 closed the county jail, requiring Archuleta County to transport prisoners 60 miles to Durango to house their inmates. The jail remains closed, and Archuleta County continues to transport prisoners back and forth between Pagosa Springs and Durango.
On Election Day, Archuleta County voters were asked to approve a sales-tax increase to pay for a new jail and sheriff’s office, but the ballot issue failed.
Before the defeat, commissioners considered using reserve funds and state grants to build court facilities in conjunction with a new jail and Sheriff’s Office. But those plans have been put on ice. Commissioners will likely ask voters again next November to fund a jail and a Sheriff’s Office, Wadley said.
“We’re a poor county,” he said. “It’s not like we have the reserves to build the building and solve everybody’s problem.”
Part of the reason the ballot issue failed, he said, is because the courts and the Sheriff’s Office abandoned the existing courthouse, and voters “felt like they were being played.”
“Also, our residents are much more concerned with roads than they are facilities, and that’s where they want their money spent,” Wadley said. “... At this point, I don’t know what we can do.”
Commissioners, who have maintained there is no health threat at the courthouse, said they are willing to move into the courthouse and allow the courts to occupy its administration building.
In his most-recent letter to commissioners, Judge Wilson said the building’s single restroom is insufficient for the number of people who will be using court services every weekday, including for urine tests that are monitored by the probation department.
Additionally, the administration building lacks an adequate security configuration to secure money and court records, he said.
It also is located across the street from a middle school. Many sex offenders are prohibited from being close to schools, Wilson said.
“As we have previously discussed, sex offenders will regularly be coming to the building,” Wilson wrote. “... I do not believe we should expose middle school children to the criminal defendants that would congregate outside of the BOCC building as they arrive and depart from the building. I doubt that the local community would approve of placing a court facility so close to the middle school for an extended period of time.”
Finally, the judge asked a second time for a copy of the county’s final air-quality report, which found no potential health hazards. In an Oct. 31 letter, the judge asked for a copy of the report under the state’s Open Records Act, which requires a response within three days. But 13 days later, he still had not received a response.