Apr 10, 2017

Who Cares About a Courthouse Anyway? An Unusual Commission in Colorado Does





An imposing and attractive two-story red brick courthouse in the city of Ouray, Colorado may soon receive several million dollars in funding for a long-planned restoration project.

Photo courtesy of Ouray County

“We’ve really outgrown our space here and are trying to make the building more functional,” notes Connie Hunt of a historic structure that stands out for its semi-circular arched windows and imposing wooden front columns.

Like many such structures in Colorado and thousands of other places in the U.S., the Ouray County Courthouse has for years been the home not only to a busy courtroom, but a number of other public agencies, including the offices of the treasurer, assessor, and county administration.

For that reason, the building at the corner of 6th Avenue and 4th Street remains one of the most well trafficked facilities in Ouray, a factor that has created no amount of small wear and tear on a structure built in 1888.

“We need to do some restoration work as well as a little bit of new construction that will not be attached to the actual historic structure,” says Hunt, Ouray County Adminisrator.

While county courthouse officials everywhere are constantly challenged trying to maintain similarly well-used structures, many of which are more than 100 years old, in Colorado they can turn to a unique source of support: the Underfunded Courthouse Facility Commission.

“I am not aware of any other program that operates this way in the country,” says Marty Galvin of the commission’s grant offerings that fund construction, upgrades, and renovations to courthouses throughout Colorado.

“The whole thing is based on the fact that we have courthouses throughout the state that are in more rural and poor counties, and they need some help and assistance in making sure that they are maintained and upgraded,” explains Galvin, senior finance manager with Colorado’s Office of the State Court Administrator.

Many of those courthouses were built in distant, dusty locations that subsequently saw a lot of growth and have, as a consequence, been challenged by an ongoing need for more courtroom and court office space.

After hearing for years from county officials who talked, or in some cases complained, about such gnawing local courthouse facility demands, members of the Colorado State Legislature in 2014 passed an innovative bill creating the Underfunded Courthouse Facility Commission.

That body, in turn, was tasked with handing out supplemental grant funds to counties in need of financial help for courthouse facility projects.

In its first year of existence, the commission was given a $700,000 appropriation from the legislature, a figure that has increased over the years to $2.5 million for fiscal year 2016-17.

Those funds, in turn, have been used for an imaginative variety of projects:

A courthouse expansion project in Mineral County in the city of Creede, received $30,000 from the commission for work that would include adding space to the courthouse’s courtroom.

Archuleta County received $60,000 for master planning services associated with building a new courthouse.

Huerfano County secured a combined $650,000 in two separate grants: $325,000 for the design of a proposed judicial center, and $325,000 for site improvements.

Montezuma County got $514,000 in funding for wood paneling and acoustic improvements inside a new $8 million courthouse in Cortez.

Underfunded Courthouse Facility Commission funds, notes Galvin, can pay for everything from master planning services, including “engaging an architect or design firm, all the way through to paying for contractors to remodel space in a clerk’s office.”

“We may also be talking about matching funds where actual construction work is being done,” continues Galvin. “That’s where we need the county to have some sort of match in the program for the project.”

In applying for grants, a county’s population, per capita income, and property tax revenues must all be below the state median, while the population in the given county living below the federal poverty line must be above the state median.

Ouray County is currently working out the details of how it will fund its county courthouse, drawing on sources as diverse as additional grants, and perhaps even eventually asking voters to approve a bond for some of the work.

But ultimately, says Hunt, the county may request anywhere from $2 million to $3 million from the Underfunded Courthouse Facility Commission.

Recalling that the 1969 epic John Wayne epic True Grit was partially filmed inside the historic courtroom of the Ouray County Courthouse, Hunt adds: “This is obviously a special building that is worth maintaining. We’re just lucky in Colorado that we have a source of support to help us do that.” 


By Garry Boulard

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