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Study: Return to Archuleta Courthouse ill-advised until problems fixed

Commissioner says relationship with state judicial branch is broken

A return to the Archuleta County Courthouse should not occur until an array of indoor air-quality issues that have led many employees to complain of eye irritation, sinus issues, coughing and fatigue are completely remedied, according to a report conducted for the Colorado Judicial Branch.

But Archuleta County Commissioner Steve Wadley said efforts by the county to work with the 6th Judicial District to find a solution that would return court operations to Pagosa Springs from their temporary relocation at the La Plata County Courthouse have broken down. In fact, Wadley said the two parties are no longer speaking to each other face to face to find a resolution.

“I don’t know if we have a constructive dialogue,” he said.

Wadley said the county lacks the funds to meet demands of the 6th Judicial District: a new courthouse. The county’s current priorities for new buildings, he said, are a new jail and new space for the Sheriff’s Office.

“We have $4 million to $5 million in reserve, and you know how far that’s going to get you with new construction,” he said.

The latest air-quality and health assessment, issued Dec. 14 and conducted by Dr. Michael J. Kosnett, was based on telephone and face-to-face interviews with county employees; reports issued by industrial hygiene and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning consultants; and a site visit conducted Oct. 24.

“A substantial number of employees who work in all sections of the Archuleta County Courthouse building have complained of a constellation of symptoms, particularly headache, eye irritation, upper respiratory tract irritation and fatigue that is highly characteristic of ‘sick building syndrome,’” the report states.

The report says that indoor air quality is unacceptable and exerts adverse effects on the health and well-being of employees working within it.

Besides hydrogen sulfide, likely of geothermal origin entering the building, the report cites a host of issues harming indoor air quality, including:

Sewage and hydrogen sulfide odors that persist despite remediation efforts.An inoperable heating, ventilation and air-conditioning unit on the roof on the western side of the building that was contributing to the lack of fresh air in the building.Water intrusions from leaks in the ceiling and from poorly maintained fan coil units resulting in intermittent growth of indoor mold.“In conclusion, the indoor air quality in the Archuleta County Courthouse building is characterized by strikingly inadequate fresh air ventilation, multiple offensive odors, unacceptably elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide of geothermal origin and the potential presence of mold- or mildew-derived contaminants,” the report states.

Wadley countered that no one has ever found levels of pollutants or gases in the building in excess of Environmental Protection Agency standards.

He said an offer by the county to trade its administrative building with the courts has been rejected, and the county lacks the funds to build a new courthouse. He added that plans shown to the county by the courts were gold-plated, with such details as private bathrooms for judges.

“This is not a community that can afford private bathrooms for public officials,” Wadley said.

He added, “We can’t meet the standards judges have in Denver. We’re a poor county. Twelve years ago, we were on the brink of bankruptcy.”

Chief District Judge Jeffrey Wilson declined to comment for this story, referring calls to the state Judicial Branch’s spokesman, Robert McCallum, in Denver.

McCallum said in his release of the report, “We will not be re-occupying the courthouse building. We are continuing our search to find a suitable location in Pagosa Springs to reconvene court operations.”

Wilson ordered all courthouse proceedings stopped Sept. 6 and moved to La Plata County after learning of multiple reports of health-related cases involving county and judicial employees who work in the Archuleta County Courthouse. Two sheriff’s deputies have passed out inside the building and three deputies have been admitted to intensive-care units at hospitals.

Building headaches are mounting in Archuleta County: A flood in April 2015 closed the jail, requiring Archuleta County to transport prisoners 60 miles to Durango to house their inmates. The jail remains closed, and Archuleta County continues to transport prisoners back and forth between Pagosa Springs and Durango.

Wadley said building a new jail is a top priority.

“We are transporting inmates 120 miles (to and from Durango), and I’m fearful for deputies’ safety,” he said.

But in November, Archuleta County voters rejected a sales tax increase to pay for a new jail and sheriff’s office.

The Archuleta County Clerk and Recorder’s Office, Treasurer’s Office and Assessor’s Office all remain in the building abandoned by the courts. Wadley said those agencies concur with the county’s effort to first address building a new jail and providing new space for the Sheriff’s Office.

“They’re servants of the people, and they are serving under adverse conditions, and we could all learn from those people,” he said.

parmijo@durangoherald.com

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