Commissioner candidates disagree on jail expansion
EAGLE COUNTY ” While current county commissioners say the $24 million expansion of the Justice Center is a routine and required project, some of the candidates vying for their seats this November are saying otherwise.
Republican candidate Debbie Buckley, who will run against Democrat Jon Stavney for the seat of term-limited Arn Menconi, said she the county hasn’t gotten enough public input nor adequately informed taxpayers about the project or how much it will cost.
The price will come out to about $38 million after interest, according to county officials.
“They shouldn’t be making those kind of spending decisions without public input,” Buckley said. “Legally they don’t have to go to a vote, but ethically they should have more public hearings.”
The commissioners have discussed the Justice Center both in regular work sessions open to the public and in closed-door sessions with attorneys. Earlier this week, commissioners planned to approve both the contract with the construction company for the expansion as well as the financing for the project as part of the consent agenda.
Consent agenda items are usually approved as an entire list and are not discussed or even mentioned individually.
Although the approvals were taken off the agenda and moved to next week, Buckley said that was a case in point.
However, commissioners said that because providing Sheriff’s Office and jail facilities is a mandated county responsibility, the Justice Center expansion does not require the sort of public input and process as other spending does.
“This is not a pet project of mine or any of the commissioners,” said Commissioner Peter Runyon, who is running for re-election against Republican Dick Gustafson. “This is only building a facility that we are required to do every bit as much as plowing the roads.”
While he admits there has never been a “wrap-up meeting and discussion” of it, he said there was plenty of opportunity for the public to give input and learn about the project.
“It’s been (discussed) more in the work sessions, which are posted and open to the public, but no one ever attended any of those,” he said.
But Buckley said the meetings aren’t easy for people to attend.
“Anytime they have hearings in the middle of the day, when people are working, doesn’t make it conducive for input,” she said.
Vail candidate Gustafson criticized the cost of the 35,000-square-foot expansion.
“I don’t disagree that the Sheriff needs more space, but they’re rearranging the whole building to do it,” he said.
Also, the county did not properly scout for the best price ” other companies have quoted much lower prices for the project, Gustafson said.
However, county officials defended the price, saying they went through a public bid process and had county engineers, facilities staff and another company review the plans and the costs.
“We did our due diligence and had the proposals reviewed as well,” Commissioner Sara Fisher said. “Our engineers and project management feel we’ve chosen the right contractor for the job.”
FCI Constructors, Inc., which is also building the county’s new schools, will do the construction. Reilly Johnson Architecture did the study that determined the need for expansion and its design.
Fisher said she disagreed with people who criticized the cost or the way the project will be financed.
“I don’t think they have the facts to back that up,” she said.
The county is funding the project through certificates of participation, a way to pay for a project with existing revenues instead of an increased tax.
Last year, the bank that is handling the financing for the project conducted a county-wide survey to see if residents would support a tax to fund a $40-million expansion. When results came back negative, the county scaled down the project and decided to fund it in an alternative way.
The Republican candidates have said the method shows the county doesn’t have the support for the project, but commissioners say the issue is blown out of proportion.
“I think that the candidates are making this an issue when it just doesn’t seem to make sense,” Fisher said. “This is the most responsible way to pay for the improvements over there.”
The certificates of participation also were used to fund the Road and Bridge building in Gypsum, which was built under a Republican county commission, and at the airport, Fisher pointed out.
“I don’t recall those ever warranting public discussion,” she said.
Democrat commissioner candidate Jon Stavney agreed that the expansion should not be such a cause for concern.
“People do not want a palace for a justice center, but they don’t want a hut either,” he said. “It seems the commissioners have gone about it pretty fairly and thoughtfully. This is being made into an election-year issue when it shouldn’t be at all.”
Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2928 or firstname.lastname@example.org.