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Keeping it real (estate) 

El Paso County may add a building to its already sizable holdings

Over the last decade, El Paso County has been on a real-estate binge, adding more than a million square feet of space at a cost approaching $200 million.

Now county officials say they need even more room, and have targeted a building at 101 W. Costilla St., owned by the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department and formerly occupied by the Sheriff's Office. Asking price: $2.2 million.

County officials say the property, about two blocks from the Terry R. Harris Judicial Complex at 270 S. Tejon St., could be used for offices associated with the judicial system — despite projections a decade ago that no further judicial space would be needed for 30 years.

If the Costilla site comes under county ownership, it will add to facilities spending that's totaled at least $183.2 million in just over a decade, including:

• $38 million for a 864-bed Criminal Justice Center wing;

• $31.4 million to upgrade the existing courthouse, buy a building on Powers Boulevard for a Clerk and Recorder's branch office, and add to a parking garage on South Tejon Street;

• $45.5 million for an addition to the courthouse;

• $61 million on the 2010 "Strategic Moves Initiative," which included buying and renovating the 300,000-square-foot Intel building at 1675 Garden of the Gods Road into the Citizens Service Center, which consolidated many county offices, including Public Health, treasurer, assessor and the Department of Human Services, among others; also, remodeling of the County Administration Building, 27 E. Vermijo Ave., into a sheriff's headquarters, and remodeling of Centennial Hall at 200 S. Cascade Ave., for commissioners, attorneys, and the departments of budget, procurement and finance;

• and $7.3 million to buy and overhaul a property on Mark Dabling Boulevard for emergency operations.

During that time, the county has sold the former DHS building at 105 N. Spruce St., for $2.4 million. Officials plan this summer to sell the former Public Health buildings at 301 S. Union Blvd., for $3 million to the Thomas MacLaren School.

For many years, the 26,600-square-foot Costilla property housed the Regional Building Department. But in 2003, a building about three times that size was built at 2880 International Circle for Regional Building, as well as city and county development offices. RBD then leased the Costilla building to the county, and the Sheriff's Office moved in.

In 2011, the sheriff relocated to the five-story County Administration Building, which had been vacated when departments moved to Garden of the Gods. The Costilla property then was used by the county's emergency operations department — until that department relocated in October 2014 to Mark Dabling, county spokesman Dave Rose says via email. That left Costilla empty.

Now Regional Building wants to sell the property, says Building Official Henry Yankowski, who was to be appointed county administrator after the Indy's press deadline on Tuesday. He says via email that the county's lease expired some time ago, leaving it on a month-to-month arrangement at $125,000 in rent annually.

Yankowski says the county is the buyer and that "a contract is being work[ed] on by EPC attorneys."

But a slower timetable was described by outgoing County Administrator Jeff Greene, recently appointed as Mayor John Suthers' chief of staff. "If commissioners make a determination we'll purchase the building, we'll go through that process," Greene says in an interview. "We need to finish an assessment of needs of Judicial."

Those needs, he says, include room for probation offices, which Administrative Judge Gilbert Martinez echoes. "We are presently out of space for probation officers," Martinez writes via email, "thus the need for expansion."

Statistics from the Colorado Judicial Branch show that criminal case filings — those that can lead to probation arrangements — actually dropped by 18 percent from 2007 to 2013, the most recent available. Growth areas are civil lawsuits and divorce cases, which increased by 73 percent and 24 percent, respectively, in that six-year period, statistics show. Those cases could impact the judicial complex, but not probation services.

Told about the statistics, Martinez reasserts that "we have been out of space for a number of years and have had probation officers sharing rooms with cubicles for years."

But even before a spade of dirt was turned on the courthouse expansion in 2005, a fact sheet stated the project was "based on projections of space needs for court operations over the next 30 years" and would provide space for probation offices, the Sheriff's Office, Court Appointed Special Advocates and the public trustee, among others, many of which are not housed there today.

All that said, Rose maintains taxpayers have gotten a good deal, noting that a facilities study eight years ago tallied $385 million worth of space needs in the coming 30 years and that county spending since has satisfied most of the "immediate" needs "at a cost substantially lower" than $200 million, largely due to the Intel acquisition.

It's worth noting that the county's real-estate frenzy has been enabled mostly without a tax increase. Only the Mark Dabling building involved a tax hike — the sheriff's eight-year, .23-of-1-percent sales tax increase approved by voters in 2012.

But it's also worth noting the county doesn't actually own the courthouse, sheriff's office building, parking garage on South Tejon, or the 300,000-square-foot Citizens Service Center. All of those are owned by the El Paso County Public Facilities Corp., a nonprofit created in 1995 to buy and own property for the county without gaining voter permission to borrow, as required by the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. That outfit leases the buildings to the county, which will pay $14.5 million this year and will continue paying until debts are retired in 2018, 2022, 2027, 2029 and 2036, Rose says.

Meantime, the Costilla property is bordered on three sides by property owned by the David Jenkins family, the region's largest developer and champion of lower downtown redevelopment, who donated the site for an Olympic Museum just two blocks away. Chris Jenkins didn't respond to questions about his family's interest in the property.

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