Posted by Jim Garrett
Mr. Vihel represented a volunteer group supporting the ballot initiative proposed by Archuleta County to increase local sales tax by 0.1% for a term of 15 years, in order to raise $19.7 million for construction of a jail and a new Sheriff’s Office. (County officials are prohibited under Colorado law from advocating for the ballot initiative.)  
Our speaker explained the history: Colorado law requires that each county maintain its own jail.  Archuleta county had operated a 34-bed jail downtown in compliance with the law, until a severe storm in 2015 flooded the facility, immediately causing uninhabitable conditions for inmates, but also damaging the foundation.  Due to the issues with the foundation, Mr. Vihel stated, costs to repair the building would be prohibitive, and the available space is not large enough to meet present and future needs in any event. 
(Note: Mr. Vihel did not mention, but your reporter is aware from familiarity with the jail issue dating from his tenure at the Pagosa Springs Sun, that replacement of the jail because of its clear inadequacies had been under active discussion for many years prior to the 2015 flood.  Also, readers may remember that the Sheriff’s Office had been housed in recent years adjacent to the jail; it remained in its space in the building even after the flood until approximately a year ago, when conditions in the building degenerated to the point of being unhealthful, causing employees to fall ill.  The Sheriff’s office thereupon relocated to the Emergency Operations Center on Piedra Road near the County Airport.  Likewise relocating from the old building at about the same time were the Archuleta County Courts, which now operate in the La Plata County Courthouse.  Future accommodations for the Court system will not be resolved by the pending ballot question.)
Because of the loss of use of the jail, the county in 2015 began to transport prisoners to the La Plata County Jail, to be held in custody there.  This entails cost for the time of employees to drive the round-trip and provide security, for the expenses of operating the required vehicles, and to pay La Plata County for providing the secure housing and legally mandated level of services required for incarcerated persons.  Ironically, this means that Archuleta County is currently providing financial support to much wealthier La Plata County.  The out-of-pocket costs to Archuleta County taxpayers for all of this amount to several hundred thousand dollars a year, Vihel summarized.  In addition, he pointed out that transporting prisoners the significant distance from Pagosa Springs to Durango, places Archuleta County at a substantially increased risk of major financial liability in the event of a catastrophic traffic accident.
The planned new jail would be located on a donated site, currently occupied by the Fred Harman Museum across US 160 from Piedra Road, Vihel said.  It would provide 54 beds, a volume judged by persons expert in jail design to be sufficient for present need and anticipated growth, factoring in the necessity to provide separation for prisoners of different classifications and those with antagonistic interests (a common issue in housing prisoners).  
Vihel pointed out that jail construction is very costly, because of the demands for both internal and perimeter security, and legally mandated prisoner facilities and services.  But he added, the real beneficiaries of the new jail will not be those to be housed there, but instead the members of the community who will have the full protections the legal process, while saving the exceptional costs currently being incurred in transporting local prisoners elsewhere.
In addition, the facility to be built with the funding to be gained by voters’ approval of the ballot question will (1) provide a new Sheriff’s Office that will not only facilitate the Sheriff’s prisoner security responsibilities but will also be more centrally-located for discharge of law enforcement functions, (2) also house the county dispatch center and provide it greatly enhanced security over its present location in a commercial building, and (3) restore the Archuleta County Emergency Operations Center to its intended use as the base of the County’s important wildfire management and search and rescue responsibilities.
Mr. Vihel explained that the new tax would be used exclusively for the proposed jail/Sheriff’s office.  The tax will pay for costs and annual debt service of a bond issue that will provide the construction funds.  The ballot question stipulates that the tax will expire after 15 years, or no later than one year after the bond is paid off, whichever is earlier.  If there are revenues in excess of amounts needed for regular debt service, they will be used to pay down principal.
The choice of sales tax as the funding mechanism, Vihel added, was equitable in that it would not fall only on property owners such as if an increase in the real estate tax rate were proposed to raise the needed funds instead, and also has the advantage of being paid in significant part by visitors to the community. He said that if the County is able to break ground next summer, it anticipates the new project can be completed in about 18 months.