Expanding the Eagle County jail
Vail, CO Colorado
EAGLE ” It seems Eagle County’s Justice Center was too small when it was first built, and it’s too small again today.
The county’s planned $24-milllion expansion of the justice center, which will cost about $38 million after interest, has become a controversial election issue.
Local Republicans have been especially critical of what they say is an overpriced project, while county officials say the expansion is necessary for the cramped courtrooms and overflowing jail.
The Sheriff’s Office reports that the jail regularly has to transport prisoners to jails in other counties, costing the county almost $500,000 each year. The judges say that the courtrooms are completely inadequate for modern-day trials.
Republican candidate and former commissioner Dick Gustafson has been the most vocal critic of the expansion, questioning the cost and the need for the project. He also said that county officials did not ask for public input and did not allow residents to have a say in spending the money.
Last year, the county did a survey of residents, asking whether they would support a tax to fund the justice center. The survey indicated they would not, so commissioners decided to fund the project from existing county funds through a 20-year lease-purchase agreement.
Gustafson, in his time as commissioner from 1984 to 1993, also dealt with a need to expand the justice center.
When Gustafson took office, the county was finishing the original justice center building ” a project Gustafson said was “fast tracked” by the previous board.
In 1986, shortly after the building was completed, court personnel complained that the facility was already too small, and commissioners agreed to build an expansion, according to newspaper reports at the time.
Commissioners held a special election asking voters to pass a bond issue in order to fund the expansion. Voters turned it down, and in 1989 commissioners committed to putting away $400,000 each year for four years in preparation for a future expansion.
“The reason we planned it that way was that we were looking toward growth in Eagle County,” Gustafson said. “We wanted the money to be available. It was planning in advance.”
However, according to articles, the costs for the expansion came in much higher than planned, and when it came time to build, only $700,000 had been set aside.
The county manager at the time said the commissioners stopped saving the money after it had a “change in direction” in their philosophy, and Gustafson was quoted as saying he couldn’t remember where the money went, but thought some of it may have been carried forward in a fund balance when the county was strapped for cash.
“I have no idea where it went,” Gustafson said of the savings.
He speculates that the money might have been diverted to other projects, such as expanding the county fairgrounds, he said.
Gustafson’s opponent, current commissioner and Democrat Peter Runyon, said the scenario was not so different from the county’s current situation.
The voters said “no”, but the building still had to be built, he said.
“The difference is that we surveyed the people instead of going to a vote,” Runyon said. “And why did they have a special election instead of having a November election and saving the taxpayers money? It’s because any funding mechanism is easier to get passed in an off-year election. People who are in favor tend to turn out.”
But Gustafson said the two expansions are completely different. The current board is spending money now and lease-purchasing the building, while his board was saving to fund the expansion in cash, Gustafson said.
“It’s a whole different ball game,” he said. “We were saving it, only to be spent when the voters approved it. We would have brought it to a vote first.”
He said he thinks the current board should only expand the jail portion for now, instead of adding to the courts and district attorney’s offices as planned, and pay for it in cash with increased property tax revenues from last year.
The county should have been planning for an expansion ahead of time like his board did, Gustafson said.
Overcrowding at the justice center was already a problem when he became a commissioner, Runyon said.
“The need is now. Tell the judges to wait until we save the money,” Runyon said. “If we started saving even $5 million a year, which would be incredibly stressful, that would be five years before we could do it. By then the cost of construction would have gone up.”
Other government projects have also been financed through similar lease-purchase agreements, he said.
“Mr. Gustafson doesn’t understand borrowing money,” Runyon said. “Would that mean you couldn’t buy a house until you have all the money?”
Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2928 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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