Officials: Courthouse expansion inevitable need

Sharna Johnson

Curry County commissioners say it wasn’t the plan that voters rejected, it was the price.

Tuesday they authorized the county manager to move forward with the purchase of three properties north of the courthouse because they say expansion is an inevitable need and property costs go up, not down over time.

County Manager Lance Pyle said the purchases — a total of $209,000 — were being made to “serve the county master plan.”

With officials citing security and crowding issues at the jail and courthouse, a 2010 master plan drafted by Albuquerque architects called for purchase of the five properties to enable the county to build a three-block judicial complex.

The plan was heavily defeated in November when posed to voters in the form of two bond questions totaling $33 million.

“I don’t think (voters) rejected the plan as much as (they) rejected the price,” Commissioner Frank Blackburn said Friday.

“It’s very obvious at some time we’re going to have to build something … we’re just looking ahead… The courthouse is boxed in and when you consider parking space, we’re landlocked. It may be 10 years but we’ve got to have some additional land to develop on.”

The county has had five properties under purchase option agreements since July, paying $100 to $250 a month each to retain first option to buy.

Blackburn said negotiations for the remaining two properties are ongoing.

Commissioner Bobby Sandoval said he too gets the message from his constituents that the problem was the money.

“They weren’t against what (the county) wanted to do they were against what it was going to cost,” he said.

“Everybody that I’ve talked to feels that our jail is too small they feel that we need a new jail … I think they all understand and agree that something needs to be done.”

And while it may not happen during their terms as commissioners, the county needs to be thinking ahead, they said.

“I think somewhere in the future we’ll come to an understanding with our taxpayers but we’re certainly going to need the room to do it whatever we decide to do,” Sandoval said.

In the meantime, housing three county offices in the newly purchased post office building on Gidding Street might be the way to temporarily alleviate some of the issues at the courthouse, they said.

The concept of moving the clerk, treasurer and assessor to the building is one area they said everyone seems to agree on, from commissioners to committees created to study the issues.

Estimates have placed the costs of renovations to the building to make the move possible somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million or more and it would be expected to take at least a year, officials have said.

As to where the money could come from, Blackburn said voter approval to extend an existing tax bond could raise an estimated $6 million.

Sandoval said there is also the possibility of obtaining a loan from the state.

By moving county offices out with the exception of the sheriff’s office it would essentially dedicate the courthouse to the judicial processes.

“We’ve got to utilize that post office. I think anyone will agree we’re out of space; somebody’s got to move,” Blackburn said.

With a courthouse that was built in the 1930s to house one judge and county business being conducted in the same halls, they said the public gets mixed in with those involved in the court process.

“From what I got, everybody recommends that we have to have a separate judicial building,” Sandoval said, explaining the move couldn’t happen soon enough in his opinion.

“In my opinion it’s imperative that we move our treasurer, clerk and assessor to the post office building … I think it’s imperative that we move forward in utilizing that building and I think it’s going to eliminate a lot of the problems that we have on security.”

Commissioner Wendell Bostwick said he too supports moving the county offices.

“We had always envisioned moving the county offices over there. That was part of the original plan … from the time we bought the post office that was always the plan,” he said.

“Our existing courthouse will never address the high profile trial security issues.”

Any structural changes to the historic building instantly trigger requirements to get it up to code standards which he said could cost $3 to $5 million.

None of that does anything to solve jail issues, he said, and they still have to work out somewhere to house the county manager, his staff and the commission.

Bostwick said action needs to be taken but he doesn’t want to see solutions reached that will not be lasting.

“I said all along, we can’t do it without some money,” Bostwick said.

“By the time you do all this it will be two or three years, but if we don’t start we will never get started. My whole thing is I don’t want to pour concrete and five years later have to tear it down. That’s just a waste of time and effort.”

Sandoval said he believes while the county resolves the issues with the courts, some non-structural options and changes can be made that might help with jail issues.

Reducing the growing inmate population is key, he said, and working to emphasize ankle bracelet programs and get bonds reduced so inmates don’t have to be housed for extended periods could change the face of the issues faced today.

“I think if we can address all of those issues we can address a lot of this overcrowding,” he said.

Commissioners expect they will be talking about jail and courthouse issues a lot in coming meetings, but not until they work through their budget, set for preliminary consideration May 5.

“Our county chairman wants us to go through the budget with a fine tooth comb. Hopefully as soon as we get that preliminary budget out of the way we can jump back into this thing,” he said. “We really can’t afford to wait anymore.”

In the meantime, commissioners said they hope citizens’ committees — the commission took no action when they asked for an extension of an April 19 deadline of for recommendations, leaving them in limbo — and the community continue to offer constructive input on the issues and assist in the process.

“We have so many people in this community that are so good at just saying no to everything but not giving us anything,” Sandoval said.

“I’m perfectly satisfied with the job that (the committees are) doing, I really do commend them.”

Bostwick, too, said he hopes they continue to help.

“I don’t think we’ve got it worked out yet. I think they need to be involved,” he said.