County spending to buy new office space has been in the plans for years and the money set aside for it, community members were advised at the Tuesday evening county commissioners' "On the Road" meeting at the Pine River Library in Bayfield.
It was response to a question on why the county is seeking voter approval for property tax increases while spending large amounts of money to buy buildings in the Durango Tech Center and to remodel the courthouse, which used to house those county offices, for federal courts.
"Years ago in the heyday of oil and gas revenues, past boards decided to set aside funds for capital projects, for building or purchasing buildings," Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said.
Assistant County Manager Joanne Spina added, "In the same way that we had an evaluation of our road and bridge needs, we had a needs assessment of our facilities in 2012 that identified over $56 million of needs. Money from oil and gas was set aside for that ... They are addressing existing needs with money set aside by previous boards and the current board."
She continued, "The conversations about a federal court started in 2008. It's not just about a federal court." Counties are required by the state to provide space for state courts with no state funding, she said. The state courts have had a substantial increase in their number of employees over the last 10 years, with no increase in space.
Commissioner Julie Westendorff said the federal courts are paying half the cost of the courthouse remodel. They will have a 10-year lease on the space, and at the end of 10 years, the county gets that space.
Spina clarified to the Times that the feds aren't specifically paying half the remodel costs, but they will make lease payments for the 10 years and pay for the courthouse tenant improvements that will serve their needs. They are paying part of that up front and the rest over the 10 years, at which time the county will own those improvements.
The District Attorney's Office, now housed in the Old Main Post Office, will be moved back to the courthouse, Westendorff said. "We're following a plan established by commissioners before us, and they saved the money for it. We've acquired buildings instead of building new or re-purposing buildings we already own."
Spina said the county got a $1.9 million state Energy Impact Grant for the courthouse and a $1.5 million grant to remodel the Vectra Bank building that the county bought back in 2012 for county administration offices, for when they had to move out of the courthouse. That move was in June 2015.
"We are hoping by providing this expanded space (for a federal courtroom and offices), that more cases can be heard locally," Spina said, "to prove the need for our area. ... and by the end of the lease period, they will recognize that there's enough need to potentially have a full time ... judge." The federal court in Bodo Industrial Park now uses a local federal magistrate and a non-local part-time federal judge to hear cases when needed.
Spina said a judge can hear higher level cases than a magistrate can. The feds are already looking for a location for after the 10-year lease expires, she said.
Lyle McKnight, who is challenging Lachelt for her commission seat in this fall's election, asked if money set aside for capital projects (buildings) could also be used for county roads. Do roads and road equipment count as capital assets? he asked.
"You could make an argument for that," Spina said. The money is coming from county reserves and will be used for things like new facilities and local matches for grants.
The county is seeking voter approval of a 2.4 mill property tax increase for road and bridge projects. It's supposed to cost $76 of additional taxes on a $400,000 home. The tax will sunset after 10 years. The county would have to get voter approval again to continue it. The county commissioners presented details about road and bridge needs and the proposed tax increase earlier this month to Bayfield town trustees, as reported in the Aug. 12 Times.