Building problems 

County commissioners address asbestos and other issues amid Bruce threats

click to enlarge County Commissioners Dennis Hisey and Douglas Bruce - on the day of a vote Bruce described as an - abomination. - 2007 JON KELLEY
  • 2007 Jon Kelley
  • County Commissioners Dennis Hisey and Douglas Bruce on the day of a vote Bruce described as an abomination.

County Commissioner Douglas Bruce last week accused his colleagues of supporting socialism, and attempted to whip up fury for their recall.

Bruce's ruckus-making failed to dissuade his fellow commissioners, all Republicans, from voting in favor of a financing plan that brings $31.4 million to El Paso County for a list of projects, including removing asbestos from the Terry R. Harris Judicial Complex.

"This is not refinancing," said Bruce, the lone "no" vote, after the meeting. "This is a new loan. You borrow money, and you pay it back with interest. Duh."

The plan borrows on existing certificates of participation that funded recent expansion of the judicial complex.

In addition to removing asbestos from the complex's south tower an issue on state health officials' radar the plan funds a build-out of the fourth and fifth floors of the building's west tower to accommodate new judges in coming years.

The money also pays for renovations to the former downtown Metro jail that was shuttered in 2005 for safety problems. When it reopens, Metro will hold about 375 inmates in a revived work/release program. The county also will buy a building at Airport Road and Powers Boulevard for the Department of Motor Vehicles, and add several levels onto the parking garage at 50 E. Costilla St.

Walter Lawson, a longtime civic activist, chided commissioners except for Bruce during the Feb. 22 meeting just prior to the vote. Lawson noted the plan arose and was voted upon within the course of a week, leaving little time for citizen scrutiny.

"This is really a slap in the face to the public," Lawson said, adding that he felt commissioners subverted the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, or TABOR, which requires tax increases to go to voters. Bruce, TABOR's author, argued the same.

However, the Colorado Supreme Court has found certificates of participation are different and not subject to TABOR.

Bruce also said many details of the plan were vague, including the reason why the county would buy the building for $3.7 million when County Assessor Mark Lowderman said it appeared to be worth just $2.2 million. (Early this week, in a 3 to 1 vote, the county moved to purchase the building for $3.2 million.)

Commissioner Jim Bensberg added that taking no action last week would cost taxpayers $1.4 million a year in the form of asbestos licensing and ongoing precautions to protect certain judicial complex workers.

After the meeting, Commissioner Sallie Clark said her primary concern was the safety of those who work in the complex.

"The asbestos is what perpetuated the urgency," she said.

The certificates of participation for the judicial complex, issued in 2002, provided the county with $44.9 million. These certificates, when repaid in tandem with other certificates issued in recent years, put the county on the hook for roughly $8 million annually until 2027. Under the new plan, the county will pay an additional $791,000 annually.

However, the county may collect nearly $1.3 million more a year as a result of slated improvements, including inmate fees from the work/release program and leasing space in the motor vehicle building to others.

While the plan helps the county address important issues, Jeff Greene, the county's top administrator, said the county budget remains in "financial crisis" with its recent reductions and sales-tax shortfall.

Meanwhile, Bruce said his cry for a recall in e-mail and a local newspaper op-ed appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

"There isn't a public outrage," he said.



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