Since the Lake County Jail was shut down due to safety concerns in March, the multitude of deficiencies surrounding the county’s civic and public safety facilities have once again been brought to the forefront.
Earlier this month, a task force including representatives from local public safety agencies and non-profits, county and city government, and the 5th Judicial District met to organize efforts around building a new jail. A larger-scale justice and/or public-safety center is also on the table.
The group’s efforts follow a failed 2016 ballot initiative that would have increased Lake County’s sales tax by 1.5 percent in order to construct a new justice center. Approximately 57 percent of voters rejected the sales tax, and with it, the hope of new detention and judicial facilities for the county.
Three years later, Lake County’s jail is no longer housing inmates and the courthouse remains one of the most deficient judicial facilities in the state, according to Colorado’s Underfunded Courthouse Facility Commission.
A jail-related lawsuit against the county, though less likely now that the jail is not housing inmates overnight, could lead a judge to proclaim the Lake County Jail deficient.
In such an instance, a property tax increase would be forced upon Lake County residents, placing a new jail’s funding entirely upon local property owners. The county would also forgo the opportunity to receive state and federal grants to help with planning and construction costs.
Emergency response agencies such as the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, Leadville Police Department and Leadville/Lake County Fire-Rescue, who are rapidly outgrowing their own facilities, have also expressed interest in joining the jail and the courts to form a larger public-safety hub.
The task force, which is co-chaired by Lake County Judge Jonathan Shamis and local attorney Chris Floyd, is weighing a multitude of questions as it begins to examine the potential of a 2020 ballot initiative.
Perhaps the biggest question concerns the scope of the proposed facility.
Will the community support a jail, a justice center, a public-safety hub? How small is too small? How big is too big?
“We aren’t looking to build the Taj Mahal,” Sheriff Amy Reyes said at a meeting in April. “But there is no point putting Band-Aids on bullet holes.”
Location is another query. What site is the best fit for the proposed facility? Should the county and/or city buy the property before 2020?
If the courts are included in the proposed facility, state statute would require the property to lie within the city limits.
These questions will all be answered through a master planning process which will likely include needs assessments, community input sessions and more.
The task force is also asking itself what went wrong in 2016. A lack of unity among stakeholders, insufficient community outreach and bad timing with other local ballot initiatives have all been identified as issues.
For example, the group will have to weigh the pros and cons of bringing a referendum to voters a year after Lake County School District. The district, which was awarded a Colorado Department of Education Building Excellent Schools Today grant to help fund construction of a new elementary school last week, plans to ask voters to provide funds to match the BEST grant in the 2019 election.
“If we can show the community that we have done our work then they will be willing to do a little more for the community as well,” Fire Chief Dan Dailey said.
As the weather warms, the task force will begin to work through the master planning process, as well as identify planning grants and other financing opportunities.
“This is costing the county money every single day that we wait,” Shamis reminded the group at their May meeting.
Task force meetings will be held on the third Wednesday of each month at 9:45 a.m. at Colorado Mountain College Room 701. All are welcome; the meetings will follow Wednesday Coffee.
Throughout the summer, the Herald will delve into the current deficiencies surrounding Lake County’s civic and public safety facilities. In doing so, the paper hopes to give citizens the tools to understand and prioritize the many facility needs facing the county.