What once stood as a 43,000-square-foot monument to government failure is now being held up as a model for how local and state government can work together to get things done.
Nearly 15 years after Mora County voters approved $2.65 million in general obligation bonds backed by property taxes to “acquire, design, equip, improve and furnish a county courthouse,” the mammoth two-story structure serving the small northern New Mexico county of fewer than 5,000 residents is now in use – or about half of it is.
The central section of the Mora County Courthouse, which for years existed only as a shell due to structural deficiencies in the building’s foundation and lack of sufficient funding to fix the problems, finally opened in May.
Officials say the local magistrate court and county government would still be operating out of portable buildings had it not been for a Joint Powers Agreement between the county and the state Administrative Office of the Courts.
“The partnership between the AOC and Mora County made this possible,” Luis Campos, facilities manager for the court operations division of the AOC, said of the agreement signed in 2014. “And now, it has become a model for how we look at approaching projects in different communities around the state.”
In brief, the AOC took over as fiscal agent and lent its expertise to overseeing construction of the building, then signed a 30-year lease to occupy space. The lease payments will be used to pay off a $2.9 million loan the county took out with the New Mexico Finance Authority.
Campos said the partnership and the funding method are now being looked at to construct magistrate court buildings in Belen, Lovington and Ruidoso.
“It was, and is, a model for how we’re looking at these different communities,” he said.
The Mora County Magistrate Court moved into new chambers on the second floor in early May. A week later, county government employees hauled files and equipment from the portable buildings they have occupied for more than a decade across an unfinished parking lot to their new digs on the first floor.
“I love it. It’s a beautiful, safe place,” said Magistrate Judge John Sanchez, who for most of his 15 years on the bench was holed up in a portable a couple of hundred yards away. “It’s the way a court should be.”
Before the county’s 70-year-old courthouse was leveled in 2007 due to damage from moisture accumulation and flooding, Sanchez said there was $1 million in funding to build a new court facility on a site now occupied by a Dollar Store.
“Then this came up,” he said of the new courthouse, which originally was supposed to be a $5.6 million facility but, through action of the County Commission, grew to become an estimated $14 million project.
Judge Sanchez’s court had nowhere to go when the big plans stalled, so the county provided the portable building.
“These office spaces are bigger than where I used to hold court,” said the judge, who always had concerns about safety and recalls a time when a fight broke out in the “lobby” of the portable. “Before, there was no security. Anyone could have lunged over the desk during a hearing.”
Attorneys would even have to step outside to hold conferences with their clients, he said.
But now, the judge has his own office (with a nice view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains) and works from a spacious courtroom with almost all of the amenities of a big city magistrate.
Safety features include a bullet-resistant window between the court clerk and a public hallway that can be mechanically secured at the press of a button. The judge is seated near a doorway he can duck into in the event a dangerous situation develops in the courtroom.
Sanchez on Monday had just finished an arraignment hearing conducted by video for a defendant 30 miles away in Las Vegas. He said he’s already held hearings with defendants as far away as Carlsbad and Farmington, saving deputies from having to make a five-hour prisoner transport for a hearing that takes 15 minutes.
“This has been a long time coming,” he said of the new court facility. “It’s really a blessing.”
A long story
The story behind the Mora County Courthouse is long and complex. It begins on Nov. 2, 2004, when Mora County voters narrowly approved the bond issue to provide funding to build a new courthouse.
But infighting among county commissioners and the county manager at the time over whether the money could be used to renovate the old courthouse or build a new one slowed progress. The standoff led to a 2006 lawsuit brought by a citizens group that claimed the funding voters approved was supposed to go toward a new courthouse, not renovation.
The Attorney General’s Office intervened and called for a special election to be held to decide the issue. But no election ever took place because of the lawsuit brought by supporters of the new courthouse, which led to a District Court judge’s order for the county to refrain from moving forward with any plans to renovate.
Meanwhile, the state fire marshal ordered the old courthouse shut down for health and safety reasons. Severe flooding of the building from heavy rainfall in August 2005 rendered the old courthouse beyond repair.
With renovation no longer an option, the county turned its attention to constructing a new courthouse and, since early 2007, has been operating out of four portable buildings.
For reasons that confound many, the county commission at the time decided to “go big” with the new courthouse.
“They could have built a pretty adequate courthouse for $5.6 million,” said Paula Garcia, who later inherited the problem when she was elected to the county commission, “but they made a conscious decision to approve a plan for $12 million to $14 million.”
Banking on future, but not-yet-appropriated, capital funding from state government to finish the project, the then-commissioners left their successors on the hook, said Garcia, who ended up serving eight years on the commission dealing with the aftermath.
While she was around to watch the exterior walls of the new courthouse go up in 2011, there was no money left to finish it. The building has stood as an unoccupied shell – except for a few northern flickers that managed to find their way in – for the past eight years.
“It highlights some of the problems small counties have in funding infrastructure. Mora became the poster child for how things could go wrong,” she said.
And, then, the situation went from bad to worse.
As revealed in a 2012 special audit conducted by the state Auditor’s Office, the project’s architect was paid nearly $1.4 million, or about 21% of total expenditures by that time. Raising questions about the procurement process, the report also noted that Ortega, Romero & Rodriguez Architects LLC of Santa Fe were the only company to receive bids for architectural work solicited by the county over a three-year period.
Franken Construction of Las Vegas won the bid to build the courthouse. The auditor’s report notes that bids for construction work won by Franken always had the same architect, Ortega, Romero & Rodriguez, which distributed the packets used to bid on the courthouse project.
After the building’s shell was constructed, it was later deemed to be structurally unsound and unsuitable for occupation. The county had to shell out millions of dollars more to remediate the building.
In 2017, the county sued the architect, Franken Construction and Hands Engineering of Santa Fe, asking for at least $2.9 million in damages. Mora County attorney Michael Aragon said that case is still pending and currently going through the discovery process.
Garcia, who is executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, says there are lessons to be learned from what happened with the Mora courthouse.
“I think that local governments need more capacity to manage public works projects in general, but especially big projects like this one,” she said. “Small cities and counties are used to dealing with roads and culverts, and such things. Local governments need more support and structure with larger projects, and there needs to be solid procurement policies and controls in place, not just on paper.”
Garcia said the AOC provided the support needed when it took over as fiscal agent.
“The biggest factor in being able to move forward was the courts getting involved. They had the experience in facilities management and a vested interest in getting it done,” she said. “But I think it was also important that we as a commission were willing to cede some of our decision-making to them to make sure the project was successful.”
AOC’s Campos agreed.
“Partnering with AOC allowed them to use our expertise to do the procurement and proposals. They recognized they needed a functional magistrate court and that it’s always important to bring access to justice into rural communities,” he said. “Because of the structural deficiency to the entire building, we had to come up with a plan to get in it. We went back and strategized with how to make it work with the money we had.”
Campos said one of the first things that was done was to scale back the project to something more manageable.
In order to do so, the building was literally cut into thirds. Tiny spaces separate the central section of the building from the unfinished north and south wings.
“We couldn’t get a certificate of occupancy if one part isn’t finished,” he explained. “So we separated those buildings, so instead of it being one building, it’s three distinct buildings.”
That also made it possible for the county to take out a smaller loan through the New Mexico Finance Authority, which is being paid back through the court’s lease payments. The county secured additional funding through a one-third of 1% increase in county gross receipt taxes.
‘A positive thing’
Mora County Commissioner Frank Maestas is proud of what’s been accomplished.
“We’ve come a long way,” he said. “It’s such a positive thing for Mora County and its citizens to have this facility. We needed to provide that for our employees and constituents.”
The county clerk, treasurer, assessor, and planning and zoning offices, as well as the Motor Vehicle Department, have moved into offices on the first floor.
“We really like it,” said Rosaless Trujillo, the county assessor, who spent the past 10 years working out of a portable building. “It’s new, it’s clean, it’s a really nice work environment.”
But there’s still work to be done.
There are five rooms in the central part of the building that remain unfinished. They’ll eventually be used as county manager’s offices, conference rooms and an employee break room.
“These are the low hanging fruit for us,” he said. “All we need to do is connect a few things.”
The economic development office, county extension agent, health office and sheriff’s office remain in portable buildings.
The county has spent $1.6 million to remediate the north wing, which some day will house the sheriff’s office. He said it will take another $800,000 to $1.2 million to build out that wing, which will include holding cells for inmates awaiting court hearings, an evidence room and a sally port.
“We’re hoping to get some capital outlay money to finish it. If we can’t get capital outlay, we’re looking at a couple of grants or putting it in the budget,” he said.
More remediation work needs to be done on the third, south wing before it can be opened. Once that’s completed, Trujillo said the county hopes to set up a similar arrangement as it has with the courts, leasing the space to one or more entities and using the rent payments to pay off a loan.
Another detail yet to be resolved is the flagpole out front of the building. While the building, or at least part of it, has been in use for three months, there’s still no flag attached to the flagpole.
“We ordered the flag three weeks ago and it’s still not here,” he said. “Like everything else, it’s a process.”