In its first meeting of 2011, the new-look San Miguel County Commission signed off on its wish list for the upcoming state legislative session, and the finishing touches of courthouse renovation are atop that list.
On a 4-1 vote, the commission approved a wish list that names construction and installation of new windows for the old courthouse as its top priority funding request. In descending order, the other projects for which the county plans to lobby are: initial design work for a reintegration center associated with the county jail; chip seal work on select county roads; and purchase of a solid waste baler.
The Tuesday meeting was the first for newly elected commissioners Ron Ortega and Arthur Padilla. While Padilla had previously served two terms as a commissioner, Ortega is a newcomer to the commission.
Ortega’s was the dissenting vote on the order of legislative funding priorities. He argued that road work should be top priority.
“I sure wouldn’t want to put windows ahead of roads,” he said, arguing that road maintenance benefits all county residents as opposed to a select group. “(During the campaign), I heard it non-stop: roads, roads, roads.”
In explaining the courthouse windows project, county manager Les Montoya said both safety and cost-savings made it important. Some of the 113 windows in the facility, including many on the third floor, cannot be opened, creating a health and safety issue for employees and visitors, he said. Additionally, he noted, the replacement of windows would allow for weatherization of the building and ultimately save taxpayer dollars on heating and cooling expenses.
Remodeling of the old courthouse facility has taken place in recent years, but the replacement of windows was left undone. The reason? Because the structure is considered a national historic building, renovations must conform to certain specifications. Items such as windows must match closely with those being replaced.
That consideration made for a more complicated -- and more expensive -- project than originally planned, and windows replacement has been put off by the county.
Montoya said the cost to replace and rebuild frames was estimated at approximately $350,000.
Four commissioners -- everyone but Ortega -- ranked the windows project as top priority among the four being submitted for funding consideration.
“This project is one that’s within reach,” said Marcellino Ortiz.
“It would be great to see the courthouse finally completed,” agreed Nicolas Leger.
Second on the list is architectural design and planning of a reintegration center for the county jail. The center would assist with helping inmates transition back into the community — something “very much needed in the county,” said Padilla. Design work was estimated at $100,000 for a facility that would cost close to $1.2 million, Montoya reported.
The roads project was ranked third. Specifically, some $411,000 would be allotted to chip seal materials for a road improvement project from “five or six years ago,” in the county manager’s words. Ortega said roadwork benefits people countywide; he mentioned the expenses residents incur when their vehicles take a beating from driving over unimproved roads.
The fourth-rated project, the baler, would allow the county’s public works department to ship bales of compacted solid waste to the transfer station in Wagon Mound, ultimately via rail. That would save the county money it currently spends on employees transporting uncompacted waste via truckload and free those employees to perform other duties.
Montoya estimated the baler would cost $250,000 but noted that the county needs to determine specifications for the machine.
“My preference would be the baler,” said commission chairman David Salazar, pointing to the cost-savings aspect. “But we don’t have our ducks in a row (for that project).”
Salazar, like Leger, Ortiz and Padilla, ranked the courthouse windows project No. 1.
Of course, the overriding concern this legislative session is that funding for such projects may be hard to come by. Lawmakers and the new governor, Susana Martinez, are facing a massive state budget shortfall -- how large is subject to speculation and debate -- and the dollars available for local projects are expected to be severely limited.
Montoya acknowledged that is the case but said he has been advised to submit a wish list anyway.