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County wants courthouse bond on ballot

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This rendering shows how the proposed county public safety building might appear. (COURTESY rendering)

This rendering shows how the proposed county public safety building might appear. (COURTESY rendering)

BERNALILLO — Sandoval County commissioners expressed support, but questioned the details, of plans to ask voters this fall for approval of an addition to the judicial complex and construction of a public safety building, during their regular Thursday meeting.

“I am totally behind this,” said Commissioner Nora Scherzinger. “This is forward-thinking.”

Tommy Mora, director of public works for the county, said the county’s latest version of the plan calls for adding 52,000 square feet to the judicial complex, at a cost of $8 million, and spending $9 million to build a public safety building that would contain at least 36,450 square feet.

Commissioner Glenn Walters said the county should explore alternative sources of funding, such as capital outlay requests, before committing the county to $17 million in new bonds.

Arthur W. Pepin, director of the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts, told the commissioners the state would pay for the new 22,000-square-foot magistrate court in the judicial complex. The state’s rent payments would cover the cost of the proposed revenue bond.

Mora explained the remaining 32,000 square feet in the judicial complex expansion would provide five district courtrooms, at an estimated cost of $250 to $275 per square foot, if the voters approve the proposed general obligation bond.

Chief Judge Louis P. McDonald said he and his colleagues can, for a few years, squeeze in the fourth district court judge who will soon join the judicial complex, which currently has three courtrooms. However, they don’t know where they will put visiting judges.

Mora shared population forecasts from the Mid-Region Council of Governments that showed the population of the county would increase 101 percent in the next 30 years.

Pepin said the judges in the county already have some of the highest case loads in the state.

Magistrate Judge Richard Zanotti said his courtroom, which is located behind the county jail, has no security. County Manager Phil Rios explained the county would keep the existing magistrate courtrooms for inmate arraignments and convert the rest of the building into training space for the jail.

Commissioner Don Chapman said he has never heard of a new building that costs $275 per square foot. He pointed out the county would have to issue a request for proposals for the projects, which he supports, and would likely receive bids that contain more affordable construction costs.

Rios said property taxes would temporarily increase during a five-year overlap between the 15-year bonds secured for the construction 10 years ago for the existing judicial complex, and the new bonds that would cover the costs of more than doubling the 48,000 square feet already in that building.

The cost, size and functions of the proposed public safety building also generated discussion.

“We started high and we worked our way down,” said Undersheriff Karl Wiese, who serves on the project committee. “And we really did start with a wish list of what we wished we could have for these facilities. And we worked as team to narrow it down to what we believe we truly needed.”

The proposed public safety building would contain the sheriff’s office and administration for the fire department. The building would also house a new or backup facility for the Sandoval County Regional Emergency Communications Center in Rio Rancho, which receives 911 calls and dispatches first responders.

The sheriff’s office would give up the 8,000 square feet it has outgrown in the judicial complex, and would finally have adequate space for evidence, conference rooms, files and records, as well as training spaces, which could be shared with other public safety agencies in the building.

Fire Chief James Maxon said the new building would replace the small, dilapidated space his department uses at a former school building in Bernalillo. The new building would have two bays for fire engines and provide better line of sight for radio communications.

Chapman questioned whether the dispatch center would relocate and does not want to see the voters pay for a county building that goes unused.

Rios said the dispatch center equipment is considerably out-of-date. He wants the City of Rio Rancho to help pay for the $650,000 it will take to replace the equipment.

Mora said the new public safety building and the addition to the judicial complex would meet the county’s needs through 2035.

Rios said the commission has until Aug. 7 to finalize the bond questions if they want them to appear on the November general election ballot.

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