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Courthouse OPENING in limbo

SANTA FE, N.M. — A state board led by Gov. Susana Martinez agreed Wednesday to provide part of the money needed to furnish a new district courthouse in Santa Fe, but it’s possible the $60 million building will sit vacant for months before judges and other court workers can move in next year.

The new courthouse has become entangled in a dispute between the Martinez administration and the judiciary over whether it’s the responsibility of the state or counties to pay for furniture and computer equipment in new district court buildings. District courts are part of the state’s judiciary, handling civil and criminal cases.

The governor vetoed nearly $1.4 million for the courthouse furnishings earlier this year, contending that Santa Fe County should pick up that tab. The county issued bonds for construction of the building and the judiciary maintains it’s been a long-standing practice in New Mexico for the state to pay for furnishing new courthouses.

The Board of Finance, which is headed by the governor, approved $250,000 on Wednesday to help buy furniture for the 1st Judicial District courthouse, which will be completed this month. However, that’s not enough for court personnel to move into the building.

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“We’re just getting caught in the crossfire,” Chief Judge Raymond Ortiz said after the meeting.

Administrative Office of the Courts Director Arthur Pepin said the building can’t be occupied without an additional $400,000 for furniture and $200,000 for computer equipment. Pepin said his agency may be able to cover part of the costs for computers, however.

Martinez encouraged Pepin and Chief Judge Raymond Ortiz to negotiate with the county for money to allow court personnel to move in early next year.

Santa Fe County Commissioner Liz Stefanics said she believes her fellow commissioners are “willing to help out on some level” but likely won’t shoulder the entire burden. She noted that Santa Fe County doesn’t want to set a “bad” precedent for other county courthouses.

Stefanics wouldn’t identify a specific amount but said the commission might consider matching the $250,000 doled out Wednesday by the Board of Finance. She said county staffers are looking at how funds from the courthouse bond could be used to pay for “secure” furnishings and fixtures, items that can’t be picked up and moved elsewhere, such as courtroom chairs bolted to the floor.

If the judiciary also puts something in the pot, it’s possible the courthouse might end up getting what it needs “piecemeal,” Stefanics said.

“We were interested in partnering before with the courthouse and the state. We’re just not prepared – and the taxpayers’ money for the courthouse wasn’t prepared – to do the complete furnishing. We will look at what we can do,” Stefanics said.

Santa Fe County Manager Katherine Miller said she and the County Commission are working with other parties on a resolution “that would get the essential items necessary for employees to move in as soon as possible.”

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“My hope is by everyone putting something in and working together we can come up with a solution,” Miller said in a written statement. “Everyone has been trying to come up with a solution to make this work. This is the approach I have been working on with the commission.”

Ortiz said the courthouse will remain vacant until June or July if the county doesn’t pay for the furnishings and the judiciary has to wait for the Legislature to provide the money. Lawmakers convene in January for a 60-day session and a state budget measure is typically one of the final pieces of legislation that is approved.

The district court serves Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties, but Ortiz said it’s required to handle many cases that don’t go to other courts, such as those involving state government agencies.

If the courthouse sits vacant, Pepin said, it will be the county’s responsibility to maintain the empty courthouse until it can be occupied.

Ortiz said furniture in the current courthouse is in poor condition – some of it nearly 30 years old – and can’t be used in the new building.

The outcome of the courthouse dispute is being closely watched by counties across New Mexico as a possible precedent for what might happen when other district court buildings are replaced in the future.

“We are concerned about this issue. We believe that the furnishings are the responsibility of the state,” Paul Gutierrez, executive director of the New Mexico Association of Counties, said in a statement. “We believe this would be a significant shift in policy and impact the counties’ budgets.”

Journal staff writer Kiera Hay contributed to this report.

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