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Time for some answers in Mora County

Litigation is never pleasant. It’s often better to settle disagreements without going to court.

But there are reasons to say it’s a good idea that the Mora County Commission, at this point, has filed a lawsuit over the county’s gigantic, unfinished courthouse and administrative complex. Litigation may be the only way to finally get some answers on how Mora spent millions of dollars on what remained for years a giant, empty shell.

In 2004, Mora County voters approved a $2.6 million bond issue, supported by property taxes, to replace a 70-year-old courthouse. That devolved into a fight over whether to actually construct a new building or renovate the old one. By 2006, residents had filed suit saying the dollars were supposed to go for a new edifice. A judge blocked renovation, and in 2007 the county razed the old building and began work on a new one.

At this point in the story, Mora County leaders greenlighted work on a courthouse that was much larger than they could afford, believing for some reason that state appropriations would come through to finish what was estimated to be a $14 million job. That didn’t happen and the unfinished structure became something of a 43,000-square-foot monument to government failure.

The last time Journal North visited the site, in 2014, feathered northern flickers were its only occupants.

A special audit by the state Auditors’ Office in 2012 raised a lot of questions. It found that architect’s fees had totaled nearly $1.4 million, or 21 percent of what had spent on the failed construction then, and suggested there were conflicts of interest involved.

But there’s never been any indication that any agency ever launched a criminal investigation. The architect said in a 2011 television news report that the County Commission had wanted to “go big” with the building and maintained former Gov. Bill Richardson had assured the county that state money would be forthcoming.

Work has restarted, with money cobbled together from various sources. The County Commission chair says construction is now scheduled for completion by next summer, which would be 14 years after the bond issue for the project was approved.

And earlier this month, the County Commission sued the building’s original architects, the construction company and an engineering firm. The suit seeks $2.9 million in damages, and alleges design and construction deficiencies, with some of the work not meeting code or engineering standards. The construction firm denied any wrongdoing and says it followed the plans it was given by the county.

This is one lawsuit that, in the public interest, shouldn’t be settled before all sides, the county and its contractors, can flesh out their versions of what happened. Taxpayers in Mora County – and New Mexico – deserve a full explanation.

This saga may have been the result of ineptitude, over-ambitious goals or naiveté. But if the county was ripped off, more than civil damages should be considered.

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