Commissioners approve one ballot question, postpone another

Sharna Johnson

Curry County commissioners Tuesday approved one ballot question and postponed action on another regarding possible tax increases to pay for a new jail and a judicial complex.

The board adopted an ordinance letting voters decide in the November general election if the county should increase gross receipts taxes to pay for a new jail.

It postponed at least until Aug. 9 whether to ask voters for a tax increase to pay for the judicial complex.

Albuquerque Architect Don May, from Rohde, May, Keller, McNamara Architecture, said he will prepare a presentation to evaluate the possibility of renovating and improving the existing courthouse and adding to the recently purchased postal building on Gidding Street.

May said he will present the information at a special Aug. 9 commission meeting.

Commissioners were expected to vote on placing both questions on the ballot for the November election:

• Whether to raise gross receipts taxes .25 percent, raising $16.5 million to pay for a new jail and improvements to the existing one.

• Whether to increase property taxes to pay for a $16.5 million general obligation bond to build a new courthouse.

Chairman Bobby Sandoval gave the only dissenting vote on tabling the motion about courthouse funding because he said he was concerned the delay would keep the county from presenting information about the project to the public during the county fair, Aug. 16 to 21.

“I’m afraid we’re losing communication with our tax payers,” Sandoval said. “We’re going to lose the education we could give them at the county fair.”

Commissioner Caleb Chandler, who said he was reluctant to raise property taxes until all options were explored, pressed May for a more detailed explanation of why a new courthouse is needed.

The plan for the complex, first introduced in June, consists of four phases and would result in more than a dozen buildings occupying a three-block tract from Seventh to 10th between Main and Mitchell streets.

Depending on how much of the plan the county decides to implement in coming years, the project could cost $90 million, officials have said.

District Judge Teddy Hartley encouraged commissioners to move forward with plans for a new courthouse and said the district court is unified in support of more space and improved security.

“All we’re talking about is $33 million,” he said. “If we don’t go forward on both of these issues, I think we’re leaving a problem for somebody else.”

Chandler said more details had surfaced recently about the plans for the judicial complex but he could not recall the commission ever hearing the information before or being given a detailed explanation of the costs and proposal.

“I think the first time I ever heard that $90 million (figure) was at the city/county luncheon (July 14),” Chandler said.

At the luncheon, May told local officials the total estimated cost for the four-phase judicial complex project was $90 million, $33 million of which would cover the first phase.

May responded that public discussion since June has centered around phase one of the plan.

He told Chandler he had met with County Attorney Stephen Doerr and County Manager Lance Pyle met prior to that and had more detailed discussions of the options, the cost estimates and the full scope of the master plan.

May explained the reason a new courthouse was proposed was the existing courthouse, built in 1936, is not in compliance with numerous building codes and as soon as builders begin work, code violations must be fixed, incurring more cost.

The building also has architectural limitations that make some modifications impossible, May said.

May said renovations still cannot address court security issues, such as separating inmates from the public. Also, the building is on the National Registry of Historic Places, which severely limits what can be done with it structurally.

With the county’s needs and limitations the courthouse faces, May said, “We felt like we had no choice … We can never fully meet the standard security requirements in this building.

“Our intentions aren’t that this is a Taj Mahal by any means,” he said, explaining the design is economical and compact.

Plans for a new, four-story courthouse are more economical, he said, running about $275 per square foot and including a tunnel to transport inmates from the jail and other security features.

May told the commission it would cost about $7 million just to bring the courthouse up to code.

But he said because of security needs and the need for more space, “(Even) if you spent the entire $16.5 million on the existing historic courthouse … You can not get there in the existing building.”

May said using a combination of the Gidding Street property and the existing courthouse could, however, meet the space requirements and security needs and said he would present that option Aug. 9.

Chandler pointed out to May the county has access to $5.6 million from a prior bond and asked May to consider that in his proposal.

Commissioner Wendell Bostwick said he is concerned the $90 million figure for the project is being misunderstood by the public. May has said repeatedly the figure is a “nebulous number” that could change or never be needed.

Bostwick said he believed the county needs to hire a public relations firm to better educate the public on the project.

Also during Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners:

• Heard a report from detention center Administrator Keith Norwood on vacant positions. Norwood said the jail has six detention officer and five other vacant positions. He said nine newly hired personnel are awaiting training.

Norwood also said 29 volunteers recently attended a seminar to bring volunteer services to the facility.

• Heard a report from Aaron Jones, county information technology specialist about several projects, including an upgrade of the jail’s software system. Jones said there have been issues in converting information from the old system to the new but most significantly there has been a lack of data input from detention staff who are not updating the system as they book people.

Jones said detention personnel have been trained on the system but need further training. “We’re spinning our wheels to be quite honest,” he said. “We don’t know where we’re going with it.”