The possibility that Santa Fe’s new district courthouse will be sitting empty for months is a real one — and an insult, really, to taxpayers who have spent $65 million on the building so desperately needed to handle justice in the First Judicial District.
As has happened so many times in the past, county taxpayers paid to build the structure, using revenues from gross receipts taxes and a property bond. The expectation was that the state would appropriate money to furnish the building. That is customary in New Mexico; that’s how other courthouses have been furnished. The request for the Santa Fe courthouse was nothing out of the ordinary. So ordinary was it, in fact, that the $1.37 million appropriation passed last year, only to be vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez. What had been a routine matter became an emergency.
Her explanation at the time? Counties, not the state, were responsible for equipment and furniture. (An attorney general’s opinion, however, has said that view is incorrect according to state statute.) The governor since has altered her reasoning for opposing the appropriation. Now she does not want to spend any more state dollars on Santa Fe’s courthouse; environmental cleanup at the site was too expensive, and the First Judicial District deserves no more state money. We are fortunate, after criticizing Santa Fe County and judges for their site choice, Martinez did not get in the way of the state Board of Finance providing $250,000 to purchase equipment and furniture. That happened earlier this week, but still leaves the courthouse short of what it needs to be open and ready for business once construction is completed in a few weeks. Last summer, the board also approved $85,000 for security equipment. Piecemeal, the money to open the place is coming together.
The court now is requesting an additional $500,000 from Santa Fe County, and we are encouraged by County Manager Katherine Miller’s proactive approach. She is working with judges and the Administrative Office of the Courts to get enough essential equipment in place so the employees can move in. Otherwise, the county will be guarding an empty building until after the legislative session is over and enough funds are appropriated — if, that is, the governor doesn’t veto them again. Even if the county can scrape together the money (and we don’t see why Los Alamos and Rio Arriba counties can’t contribute, given that this is a three-county judicial district), the building won’t be occupied until mid-February. Taxpayer money, however you slice it, is being wasted.
This is a mess that did not have to happen. For other counties, it could set a bad precedent. By statute and custom, counties have relied on state dollars for furnishing courthouses. Now, that funding is in doubt for future projects. Unless, of course, this is less about who pays for courthouse furnishings and more about punishing Santa Fe. To everyone making it possible for the First Judicial District to get moved in, congratulations. The efforts of the Administrative Office of the Courts, the First Judicial District and Santa Fe County officials display the kind of cooperation that we need more of in government.