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Group will study county courthouse needs

Posted: Thursday, Mar 28th, 2013

The Alamosa County Courthouse is struggling to handle the number of cases coming through its doors. Courier photo by Lauren Krizansky

Courier staff writer

ALAMOSA — It goes without saying that the Alamosa County Courthouse is an impressive building.

Yet even after periodic upgrades over the years, the historic structure is showing the signs of its age, and a new state report finds that it can no longer meet the judicial system’s daily demands.

The author of the report walked county commissioners, judicial officials and others through his findings on Wednesday, marking the start of a lengthy master planning process to address the court system’s needs.

In the months to come, many of those same people will be weighing the options that author Tom Franklin identified, including the possibility of remodeling the current building.

As an alternative, they could recommend construction of a brand-new courthouse on county-owned property across the street from the Alamosa County Detention Center.

Franklin, who serves as Colorado’s judicial facilities planner, called the existing courthouse a beautiful, well-maintained and historic property.

“One of the things I noticed is that it’s still a very valuable building,” he said Wednesday.

But it simply wasn’t designed to handle the growing number of cases that come before the judges, their staffers and probation department employees.

“The overarching deficiency of the current Alamosa Justice facility is that the courts have simply outgrown the building and there is no viable option for expansion at the present location,” Franklin said in his report.

The assessment found that the 15,000-square-foot building suffers from numerous design flaws and shortcomings.

For one thing, the Mission-style courthouse is split up into three rows, which forces court staffers and visitors to walk outside in order to get from one office to another.

The layout also puts greater demands on the court’s security details, according to the report.

One concern in particular rises above many of the others: there are no holding cells or secure prisoner traffic routes for in-custody defendants.

Right now, prisoners or inmates typically walk in through the main public entrance, where they may come into contact with family members, court employees, the public at large or even the victims in a case.

The current traffic pattern increases the odds that a disturbance or a confrontation could occur.

Other counties that considered that possibility chose to remodel their existing facilities, or to build new courthouses altogether.

In fact, the state’s newest courthouses are broken up into three zones: a public access zone, a staff circulation zone and a secured access zone for inmates, prisoners and law enforcement personnel.

Safety aside, the report found the facility is out of compliance with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act. For instance, there are no elevators leading up to the two courtrooms on the second floor.

In terms of other deficiencies, the building lacks meeting rooms and waiting areas. Restroom facilities and parking spaces are also inadequate, and electrical utilities and air conditioning systems throughout the building are outdated, as well.

“We’re not keeping up with the times,” Alamosa County Commission Chairman Darius Allen said.

Based on the current limitations, it might be tempting to build a new, 35,451-square-foot courthouse from scratch.

The process to reach that goal is not without its own challenges, though.

Allen estimated that a new courthouse could potentially cost anywhere from $6 million to $8 million.

Unfortunately, the county’s options to borrow money are fairly limited under Colorado law, according to Alan Matlosz, a senior vice president with the public finance division of George K. Baum and Co.

If the county chooses to sign up for a 25-year loan to fund construction, Matlosz said it could expect to pay $64,000 annually for every $1 million it borrowed.

Grant funding is another option, and Allen suggested that the county could ask voters to approve a sales-tax increase for additional construction revenue.

In that case, county officials would probably launch an educational campaign to outline the benefits a new courthouse would bring to the community.

Assuming the county ultimately decides to build a new facility, Franklin noted it could recoup some of its construction costs by renting any free space out to tenants.

If the jail-area site turns out to be a feasible option, law enforcement personnel would no longer have to transport inmates across town, which could lead to a substantial drop in related costs, to boot.

As for the existing courthouse, Allen suggested the county could transform some of the property into new office space — or, better yet, rent it out to a coffeehouse.

“We definitely want to keep it,” he said.

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