The Truth, The Whole Truth: The Justice Center
This week, Leadville Today’s Political Round-Up report covers the Lake County Justice Center ballot initiative, more formally known as Referendum 1A for local voters. In short, the measure asks voters to approve a 1.5 % sales tax increase for the next 25 years to cover the costs of building a new Justice Center. This is the only local, county measure on the ballot.
Professional journalists are challenged with the task of staying neutral, of simply presenting the facts to a story. In the business, it’s called the Who, What, Why, Where, When and How of reporting. In that regard, Leadville Today has covered the Lake County Justice Center initiative in this manner.
After ten months of attending public meetings, reviewing mail-in questionnaires, and monitoring the Lake County Justice Center taskforce’s Facebook Page, here’s what can be reported to readers.
Who is behind the Justice Center? It is the Office of the State Court Administrator that is ultimately the driving force behind Referendum 1A. In 2014 the Colorado legislature approved House Bill 14-1096, providing the Colorado Judicial Branch the authority to allocate monies for the “Underfunded Courthouse Facility Commission.”
The goal of this Commission is to provide supplemental grant funds to counties in need of financial assistance for courthouse facility projects. The commission touted that “courthouses across Colorado were being impacted by expanding caseloads, the allocation of new judges to some growing districts, and the aging of existing courtroom facilities.”
Lake County certainly fits the bill. For years, Lake County Sheriff Rod Fenske has been reporting safety concerns at the jail. In fact, at the July 21 Justice Center taskforce meeting, out-going Lake County Commissioner Mike Bordogna announced that “from the time Sheriff Rod Fenske took office six years ago, one of the things that he’s been telling us over and over in every report is the inefficiencies in our current jail. We have the third oldest jail in the state of Colorado.”
However, it is important to note that under the state’s priority designation, Lake County is listed as “Eligible,” the mid-range ranking between “High Priority” and Not-Eligible.” Colorado statute (13-1-301, C.R.S.) states that the fund is to provide funding for courthouse facility projects in the counties with the most limited financial resources.
In addition, the grants can be used to pay for master planning services for a courthouse project, for example, for architects or questionnaire services. Grant funds cannot be used to pay for furniture, fixtures, or equipment. In addition to these limitations, grant funds cannot be used as the sole source of funding for new construction, unless the need is associated with the imminent closure of a courthouse.
If passed, the revenues generated from the increased sales tax would be used “to provide adequate detention and judicial facilities.”
Why does Lake County need a new Justice Center? In this video from the July 21 public meeting for the new Lake County Justice Center, Chief Judge for the 5th Judicial District Mark D. Thompson explains why a new Justice Center is needed.
Where will the new facility be built? After initially identifying eight possible locations at the January meeting, outgoing Lake County Commissioner Bruce Hix announced at the final Sept. 8 meeting that the county was “in negotiation” with Union Pacific regarding possibly buying the property on the corner of Monroe and historic Harrison Avenue on which to build the new facility. No updates have been provided on the progress of these discussions.
Registered voters will mark their ballots regarding Ref 1A up to and including Election Day: Tuesday, Nov. 8. If the measure passes, no timeline for construction has been presented.
How will the building be funded? The new Lake County Justice Center will be built with tax revenue generated from a 1.5% sales tax increase over the next 25 years. While there has been much discussion about needing to supplement that fluctuating income with other funding mechanisms, none of those plans have been confirmed or provided in detail. At the Meet The Candidates Night on September 24, Commissioner Hix stated that the operational and maintenance cost for the new Justice Center would come out of the county’s general fund.
Last January, Colorado Supreme Court Justice Nancy Rice traveled to Leadville with a group of state officials to meet with the local taskforce and gauge their progress to date. After 90 minutes of presentations and discussion by everyone from district and county court judges to local law enforcement and probation, to county and city officials, Judge Rice made some simple comments and suggestions. The first had to do with educating the public on the “economies of scale” surrounding such a project; she stressed the importance of bringing the community into the conversation.
Judge Rice concluded her visit with the following statement: “To me it feels like you guys – with all due respect – have a lot of work in front of you if you’re going to get this on the November ballot. We’re willing to make this a top priority in the state, but just from observing, I hate to say this so bluntly, but I think you have to kind of get moving.”
That was 10 months ago. Today, after reviewing the questions and statements sent in by voters on the questionnaires, as well as online discussions, there seems to be more questions than answers.
Regardless, three weeks from today, voters will have had their say. Leadville Today will be there to report on whether or not the taskforce was able to satisfactorily answer the Who, What, Why , Where, When and How for the new Lake County Justice Center.
InCase You Missed It: Stay Informed. Stay Involved.