What to do with the Justice Center?

Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016 12:57 AM
Work is underway for the new combined courthouse building at N. Park and E. Driscoll streets, just south of the sheriff building and west of where the new Osprey Packs headquarters will be.
When the new courthouse is finished, the county commissioners will be selling the Justice Building, at North Mildred Road just south of E. Empire Street.
Social Services will be moving after the new courthouse is built. County commissioners plan to sell the building, located between W. Main Street and S. Chestnut Street.

When the new combined courthouse is completed late next summer, there will be an exodus from two Montezuma County buildings as departments and court staff are shuffled to new office locations.

The 20,000-square-foot county Justice Center at the corner of N. Mildred Road and E. Empire Street, and the 4,800-square-foot Social Services building at W. Main and S. Chestnut streets will be emptied of county government and court services.

“The county is trying to decide what the best use of those buildings are,” said commissioner Larry Don Suckla. “The commission is in agreement to do everything in our power to not leave those buildings vacant.”

The county owns the Justice Center building, but land around it is shared with the City of Cortez. County attorney John Baxter said the city and county should work together to decide the use of the building.

The buildings could be repurposed or sold to offset the costs of the new $8.3 million courthouse.

County administrator Melissa Brunner said social services will consolidate into the two empty floors of the county building’s east wing, including the District Court area.

Brunner would like to see the commissioners’ meeting room moved to the third floor of the east wing where the old assessor’s office used to be. That would free up space for the county’s information technology department.

The commissioners heard ideas and concerns about the future of the Justice Center during their meeting Aug. 29.

Bridge shelter at riskThe Bridge Emergency Shelter and Cortez Day Labor Center are located in one-third of the Justice Center. The shelter and job center use the facilities rent- and utilities-free, courtesy of the county.

Bridge director Lori Knutson urged the county to continue supporting the homeless shelter and job center at its current location. The facility serves a growing homeless population, she said, and offers needed job-finding services.

Last winter, the shelter filled 6,035 beds, compared with 5,350 the previous winter. The overnight shelter is open only during the winter months, but the job center operates year-round.

“This year, we noticed an incredible jump in elderly people at the shelter. Their apartment leases run out, rent is doubled, and Social Security and disability payments stay the same,” Knutson said. “They come in with a deer-in-the-headlights look and many have a lot of medical issues.”

Knutson said that at while the shelter does provide overnight stays for people with alcohol and drug problems, it is a misconception that they are the majority.

In the past two years, the number of inebriates checking into the shelter has dropped from 1,334 per year to 1,288, she said.

“We use a Breathalyzer at the door. Seventy-eight percent of shelter users are not inebriates.”

It is estimated that there are 323 homeless people in the Cortez area, and many do not use the shelter, choosing instead to sleep in doorways, parks and in cars in the Wal-Mart parking lot.

In addition to the elderly, families are also the fastest growing segment of homelessness, Knutson said. But The Bridge shelter can’t accommodate families with children.

“We would like to be able to expand at our current location to accommodate families. I get two frantic calls per week from families seeking shelter. Homelessness is not going away, and the reason is because housing is no longer affordable,” she said.

Sheriff Steve Nowlin said the shelter “is a safe place” for law enforcement to take people who need help. He said the idea of creating a detox center at the Justice Center is being discussed and could help offset costs of the shelter.

Shelter board member Doug Green added that The Bridge should stay where it is because it benefits the community and reduces the workload for police and the hospital.

“A shelter provides a place for people to go; otherwise, it becomes the city’s responsibility,” he said.

The shelter operates on a tight budget, he said, and relies on grants, government and community donations, and a surcharge from city fines.

“In Aurora, they use taxes from pot sales to defray the costs of homeless shelters, and that is an idea we could look into,” Green said.

County officials said there have been complaints about some homeless people’s behavior while they wait in the park and Cortez Recreation Center to get into the shelter.

“Is it the best place for shelter?” asked county commissioner Larry Don Suckla. “There are side effects of have The Bridge shelter where it is. Maybe the benefits outweigh the side effects. The question should be put on the table.”

Charter school interested The growing Children’s Kiva Montessori Charter school made a pitch to purchase the Justice Building as a long-term home.

Kiva board president Nathaniel Sealy said a recent analysis shows the school is in a position to take out a 25-30-year loan to purchase and remodel the building.

“I see it as positive for the community and a compatible use for the area,” he said. “Seeing kids in the parks is a good thing, and the parking lot would make a good drop off point.”

The Kiva Montessori school was established in 2014 and serves grades 1-8. It has exceeded growth expectations, Green said, and expects to soon outgrow it’s current location on N. Beech Street.

The school currently has 100 students, and has a goal of 180-200 students.

“Space-wise that building is perfect for us,” Green said.

Other problems will need to be worked out regarding the future of the Justice Center building, officials said.

For example, the Colorado State Patrol, Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office, and Cortez Police Department share a vehicle impound lot on the property. Also, the sheriff’s office has a long-term evidence storage facility in the building.

The situation “is kind of complex,” Baxter said.