By Paula Garcia, Chair, Mora County Commission
Op-Ed Submitted to the Las Vegas Daily Optic, February 2, 2011
Mora County is known for both its beauty and also for its persistent, rural poverty. Any major public works project in the County faces great challenges because of limited funding and capacity for strong oversight. The Mora County Complex, a proposed multipurpose facility, has a long and complicated history. Its purpose is to house county offices and judicial facilities. Although many people are understandably frustrated with the slow progress as well as the size and cost of the project, Mora County will have to learn from the past, improve management of the project, and develop creative solutions to move forward.
In August 2004, the State Fire Marshal condemned the old courthouse and ordered county employees to evacuate. A group of local leaders mobilized to pass a bond to build a new facility. The voters of Mora County narrowly passed a bond of $2.65 million dollars in November 2004. The Commission at the time decided to use the funds for renovation of the old structure and contracted with Ortega, Romero, and Rodriguez Architects to design the remodel of the 17,000 sq. ft. building. A lawsuit by Mora Taxpayers for Honest Government stopped that project in favor of a new structure.
In January 2007, a new commission took office and redirected the same architect to design a new facility, the Mora County Complex. The new design was for a 42,000 sq. ft. structure with a preliminary cost estimate of $7.25 million according to a work order dated February 2, 2007. An amendment approved by the commission on April 24, 2009 approved an updated cost estimate to $12 million. With only $5 million on hand, a combination of bond and legislative funds, the commission decided to proceed with construction of the “shell” of the building.
Franken Construction was awarded the construction contract in November 2008. This phase of construction proceeded until funds were nearly depleted. In 2010, $500,000 in federal stimulus funds was secured for an energy efficiency project to install windows and doors on the facility, which is nearly completed.
Now, in February 2011, over six years after the people of Mora County passed a bond to finance a county courthouse, the structure is partially complete. The project is under intense scrutiny by the people and the news media. News reports will tend to sensationalize the story with extreme statements, including that the current structure be demolished. The County has no such plans.
Even though this controversy is difficult, this negative attention is an important step in moving forward. This is a time to focus some sunshine on the project, air it out, reflect on it, and learn from the past. The fact is that Mora County has great need for a multi-purpose facility. Our most urgent need is a safe and healthy working environment for our county employees who are the lifeblood of county government.
The new County Commission has already taken the following steps:
· Requested the State Auditor to do a special audit that will recommend improvements in oversight of taxpayer dollars.
· Held a fact finding session with the architectural firm attended by a standing-room-only crowd.
· Actively seeking to hire a County Manager which will improve project management and oversight by Mora County.
· Invited the General Service Division and Construction Industries Division to train Mora County officials and staff. As stewards of precious taxpayer dollars, it is incumbent on public officials to sharpen their skills when dealing architects and contractors.
To be clear, contrary to innuendo in TV news reports, there are no plans to demolish the current structure and start over. The new Commission is focused on learning the history and getting advice about how to move the project forward to completion.
This is a teachable moment for the people of Mora. Debate over the use of public funds is part of our democracy. Government at its best should be open and transparent so that diverse opinions can converge on better decisions by elected officials.
In the coming weeks, the Mora County Commission will be considering next steps for the Mora County Complex, including options for phased completion and financing. Meetings will be held on February 7, 2011 at 10am at the Mora Independent Schools Board Room and on February 15, 2011 at the Wagon Mound Village Hall. Additional meetings are planned for public input.
The people of Mora County have proven to be resilient and have endured many hardships in the past 200 years. I am confident that we can work our way through our current challenges.