The 'Rolls-Royce' of courthouses sits unfinished in Mora County

MORA, N.M. (KRQE) -- Think majestic. Think monumental. Think iconic. Now, think Taj Mahal.

Of course the Taj Mahal is in India. Not nearly as well known and hidden away among the pines of a small mountain community is New Mexico's own version of the Taj Mahal. In fact, New Mexico's Taj Mahal is 10,000 square feet bigger. And while India's sacred temple draws millions of tourists a year, no one visits the New Mexico building. You see, it isn't a monument to grandeur, it's a monument to waste.

A Multi-million Dollar Scandal

Years ago, taxpayers shelled out millions of dollars to construct a gargantuan public building in Mora, New Mexico. But once the structure was half completed, local politicians pulled the plug and abandoned the project. Today, it's a massive two story, neglected, empty shell. Welcome to, what was supposed to be, the Mora County Courthouse.

"It's the biggest deal that New Mexico has right now," said State Senator Pete Campos, who is an outspoken critic of wasteful government spending.

"It's deplorable. It's sickening. Our taxpayer dollars truly have been wasted on a lot of these buildings across the state because we haven't completed them," Campos said.

To understand what happened here you need to go back to a multi-million dollar government scandal hatched a dozen years ago in northern New Mexico's Mora County.

After Mora County's crumbling, outdated courthouse was condemned for safety hazards in 2007, County Commissioners hit up the legislature to fund construction of a new government center. Armed with $5 million, the County Commission hired architect Antonio Ortega to draw up plans. But instead of designing a $5 million building, Ortega cranked out plans for a 44,000 square foot, $12.1 million 'Rolls-Royce' courthouse.

Even though Mora County Commissioners at the time knew they didn't have enough money to complete the building, they authorized construction anyway. In fact, there was only enough money to build a foundation, two stories, walls and a roof. The County scraped together another $500,000 to install windows and doors. Then, the project was simply abandoned.

That was eight years ago.

Operating in Makeshift Offices for 10 Years

Today, Mora is the only county in New Mexico without a courthouse and for past 10 years, the public's county business has been conducted in a series of aging double wide trailers.

"It's been challenging," said current Mora County Commission Chair Paula Garcia. "Ultimately it's the people of Mora County that have paid because our citizens have to conduct county business in these substandard facilities."

Don't look for state courtrooms in Mora County, there aren't any. In fact, the county's sole Magistrate Judge works out of a single-wide mobile home. Jury trials are conducted in the Mora School Board meeting room.

"It is not a sufficient facility in which we should be conducting court business for the public and Mora County," said Administrative Office of the Courts Director Artie Pepin.

While the government in Mora County operates out of makeshift offices, across the road sits the abandoned multi-million dollar, half complete courthouse, on hold.

Work Moves Forward, Partially

After an absence of eight years, construction workers are back. They've resumed work on the abandoned two story building shell in an effort to turn it into a functioning courthouse. Thanks to legislative funding, a local tax increase and a bank loan, newly elected members of the Mora County Commission pulled together enough money to build out a portion of the existing structure for county office space.

"This has been our top priority. Our goal has been to get something done to move our employees out of those trailers and into a permanent building," Commissioner Paula Garcia said.

Mora County Commissioners hope to obtain additional funding this fall for a Magistrate Court as well as space for the Sheriff's office. It is costing almost $2,000,000 just to evaluate the structural integrity of the structure and remedy mistakes made in the original construction.

"It doesn't mean the buildings going to fall over (or) the walls are going to fall out," said AOC Director Artie Pepin. "But it does mean (the building is) not built with sufficient structural integrity to meet code requirements. We want the building that the public is going to use to be built to code."

"The bad news is there (are) structural deficiencies. The good news is they're fixable but it's at a cost," said Commissioner Garcia. "We feel that the costs of those deficiencies should be borne by the people who are responsible for making those errors and we feel like they should be held accountable."

Mora County Commissioners say they intend to file lawsuits against the original architect, contractor and structural engineer.

"The public has expended a significant amount of money on this building," Artie Pepin said. "It's amazing with everything that has happened with this building over time that we really are on the verge of actually having the public conduct business in the building."

Newly constructed County offices and a Magistrate Court will occupy about half of the existing structure. Construction is expected to be complete by Spring 2018.

"Hopefully in a year or two the story is going to be that the Mora County courthouse is a fine public building serving the public interest ... the way that it was intended to," Senator Campos said.


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