Judge, sheriff explain proposed tax

San Luis Valley officials had an uphill battle to convince locals to tax themselves to build a new jail. From the Alamosa Valley Courier.

Judge Pattie Swift, left, and Sheriff Robert Jackson discuss Referendum 1A.

With the election less than a month away, Alamosa County civic leaders are working hard to rally support for Referendum 1A, which would impose a one-cent sales tax to fund construction of a new courthouse and renovation of the county jail.

If approved, the tax would pay for a large portion of the approximately $21 million project, with the remainder coming from grants. The tax would be collected for 20 years, after which it would drop to a quarter-cent tax to remain in perpetuity to pay for ongoing maintenance of the structures.

12th Judicial District Chief Judge Pattie Swift and Sheriff Robert Jackson gave a presentation regarding the proposal to the Women’s Citizenship Club and members of the public at the First United Methodist Church on Friday.

Both called the project sorely needed. Swift said the current county courthouse, which was built in the 1930s, is far too small for the county’s needs. When the courthouse was constructed, it housed all county offices, as well as a three-cell jail. Today the building houses four courtrooms and associated offices, as well as some of the probation department – the overflow being housed in rented office space on San Juan Avenue.

Swift said the limited space causes serious security concerns. Currently, prisoners appearing before a judge are walked through the same corridor as witnesses, employees, family members, and members of the public.

“We want to provide a safe space,” said Swift. “We can’t do that with our current design.”

The courthouse has four public entrances, said Swift, only one of which has a metal detector. Current best practices for courthouse design call for a single controlled public entrance where people can be screened for weapons or other contraband.

“A lot of people have to use the court,” Swift said. “People say it’s just people who commit crimes, but that’s not true. We have a lot of civil cases there. If you need to probate your parents’ estate, or you’re called as a juror, or you want to watch a big water trial, those take place at that courthouse.”

Two of the courthouse’s courtrooms are upstairs and are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, forcing court staff to rearrange the court’s schedule if a party requiring handicapped access is scheduled to appear in one of the upstairs rooms.

The current courthouse also has outdated infrastructure, said Swift, and staff often inadvertently blow breakers when using multiple electric devices.

Of the current courthouse’s four courtrooms, only one is set up for jury trials, which has forced the court to hold trials in the county commissioners’ chambers and the Presbyterian church across the street, said Swift, adding that one murder trial was held at the Elks Lodge.

Swift said Colorado law requires the county to provide an adequate courthouse facility, and that the proposed tax increase would pay for a facility that would satisfy the county’s needs.

A task force convened several years ago to propose solutions looked at expanding the current courthouse, but such an expansion would be incompatible with the building’s historic designation, which prohibits major structural changes. The task force recommended a new structure on county-owned property at the south end of Alamosa, next to several recently-built county office buildings. The proposed new courthouse would feature larger courtrooms, more office space, and more secure and separate entrances and holding areas for prisoners appearing before a judge.

Swift said much of the opposition to the tax has centered on the misconception that it will not sunset to a lower rate after 20 years, though she said the county would be prohibited by law from extending the higher rate without a popular vote.

Opponents have also argued that residents outside the county will shoulder much of the burden of the new tax, though Swift said that’s reasonable because much of the court administration tasks of the Valley’s other counties are handled by Alamosa County.

Sheriff Jackson said the tax would also help pay for badly-needed upgrades to the county jail.

The county’s current jail was built in 1985 to house 48 inmates, but was renovated a few years later to house 87. Today it routinely sees more than a hundred inmates at a time, with many sleeping on floors. Overflow prisoners – particularly women – are shipped to other county’s jails, a practice that costs Alamosa County roughly $400,000 a year.

Overcrowding stresses inmates and staff, and strains the jail’s aging HVAC system, which was designed for 48 people, said Jackson, adding that diseases spread quickly in the facility’s stagnant air.

“A lot of people say ‘I don’t care, they got themselves in there, they’re criminals,’” said Jackson. “Well, that’s not entirely true. 75% of the jail population are innocent until proven guilty. They have not been convicted of any crime. How do you treat them? You make them sleep on the cold concrete floor?”

Jackson said his portion of the proposed tax increase would primarily pay to improve the air quality – and extend the jail’s female pod, which was designed for eight inmates, but was recently retrofitted to house 12,with any overflow being shipped out. The proposed redesign would add beds for 32 additional female prisoners.

“It will alleviate the current emergent problem,” said Jackson. “People ask how far in the future this will get us, and I say it won’t. Maybe ten minutes. We’re not asking for the moon or for what we think will happen ten years from now. We’re asking for financial help to alleviate the problem, and stop the bleeding from all this financial drain from our coffers into other counties.”

Jackson said that if voters don’t approve the tax increase, it’s not impossible that a higher court may one day force the county to build a better jail, which would likely be paid for with property tax revenue.

If the tax was approved, a team would begin working on the project as soon as January, said Alamosa County Commissioner Darius Allen, adding that the county would give preference to local contractors.

Allen said he’s optimistic the measure will pass.

“I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback,” said Allen. “I think people understand the needs of the county, and the obligations we had. It’s not like we just said one day we want a new courthouse. To me, one of the most fair taxes there is is a sales tax. Everyone pays – not just property owners.”

Sheriff Jackson called the measure crucial.

“We don’t have a Plan B,” said Jackson. “We don’t know what we would do if this doesn’t pass.”