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Voters to decide on new courts facility

This fall, Gallatin County voters will decide on a bond for a new courts facility.

The Gallatin County Commission unanimously voted last week to put a $29 million bond on the general election ballot this November.

According to county officials, the new facility would be safer, more efficient and serve all Gallatin County residents.

The bond will be used to replace the current Law and Justice Center, located in Bozeman, with a new single-story, 57,000-square-foot building that will house the following:

• District Courts (including an additional courtroom and space for Gallatin County’s incoming fourth District Court judge)

• Justice Courts

• Youth Court

• Standing Master

• Clerk of District Court

• Self Help Law Center

• Public community room

Property taxes on a home with an assessed market value of $500,000 would increase by $33.50 per year. However, that amount would decrease each year as more property taxpayers move into our rapidly growing county.

Gallatin County Commission Chairman Scott MacFarlane said that “a new court building is the only cost-effective solution to Gallatin County’s short-term and long-term needs for safe and efficient courts.”

MacFarlane called the proposal a responsible solution to the issues facing the current courts facility, problems that have been impacting taxpayers for two decades and that will persist as Gallatin County continues growing.

“This is our most responsible and best project to solve the court needs,” MacFarlane said.

Commissioner Joe Skinner noted that voters have rejected two previous proposals to replace the building, but said the county has listened to voters and found unique and creative ways to cut down project costs and still address the courts’ needs.

“I really think we got it right this time,” Skinner said. “This is the right project at the right time. I’m happy to be able to put this on the ballot.”

Commissioner Zach Brown said this project is “fundamentally a need, it is not a want,” noting that the county must find space to house an incoming fourth District Court judge recently funded by the Montana Legislature.

“Our justice system is a constitutionally protected and mandated service. It’s fundamental to the way our economy and democracy work,” Brown said. “I’m really looking forward to having a robust conversation with taxpayers about this project between now and November.”

When a replacement building was proposed in 2019, the price was $60 million. By using value engineering, strategic design and a smaller footprint, the new construction plan will reduce the cost to $38 million. But taxpayers will pay less. Gallatin County has been saving for this project and will cover about 25% of the construction at no additional cost to the taxpayers. And the county was able to purchase a new facility for Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office operations, making this proposal even smaller. In effect, the total bond—that is, the cost to the taxpayers—has been reduced to $29 million.

The current Law and Justice Center was built in 1961 as a Catholic high school and later retrofitted into a law enforcement and courts facility. The structural integrity of the building is compromised and it lacks a fire suppression system. This endangers thousands of citizens who utilize the building every month – from those serving our community working there daily, to those serving their civic jury duty, getting married, being granted adoptions, seeking orders of protection, and those settling life-altering disputes.

There is also a lack of space in the current building. There are not enough courtrooms – which the county is constitutionally mandated to provide to our state-allocated judges – or administrative space to handle current caseloads. The 2021 Montana Legislature approved funding for a fourth District Court judge, who is slate to arrive as soon as January 2022, and the county must provide space for that judge and their staff.

This current lack of space means civil court cases can see wait times for adjudication stretch into years, at the expense of our area businesses.

This also means extended wait times for criminal trials, meaning defendants spend longer in jail or on pretrial supervision, both of which are expenses passed on to taxpayers.

And for victims involved in criminal trials who are seeking justice so they can move forward with their lives, their day in court becomes a far-too distant point on the horizon.

In addition to the human cost of an inefficient, unsafe justice center, construction costs in Gallatin County are increasing by an estimated 10% year over year. This same project proposed in the future is likely to cost much more.

Ballots for the 2021 general election will be mailed on Oct. 13. They will be due back no later than 8 PM on Election Day - Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.