In 2018, Gallatin County District Court received 4,900 new cases, an increase of 1,370 from 2009.
“We are really overloaded,” said District Judge Rienne McElyea, advocating for the county to replace the Law and Justice Center with a new building that would include space for the two additional district judges needed to absorb this growth.
To pay for the new building, the county commissioners are considering asking voters for a $59 million bond issue in the November election.
If voters approve the project, property taxes would increase about $34.10 annually for a house assessed at $200,000. However, the tax impact likely would decline over the 20-year life of the bonds as the county’s population — and number of property owners — grows.
The proposed 129,000-square-foot building would include the sheriff’s office, victim services, youth court services, the clerk of district court, and the justice and district courts. The county anticipates the new building would meet its space needs for a few decades and improve its ability to serve the public.
Unlike the existing building, the new Law and Justice Center would house the county attorney’s office, which is now located in the Judge Guenther Memorial Center on West College Street. County Attorney Marty Lambert, who urged the commissioners to ask voters to fund the project, said having his office closer to victim services staff would make it easier to provide resources to crime victims.
The new center would also meet building code, making it safer than the existing Law and Justice Center, which was constructed in the 1960s.
“Not only is there a space need, but let’s not forget the safety of the people in that building,” said Dave Wysoski, chief youth probation officer. “If something were to happen to that building, it would be catastrophic for this community.”
The commissioners will vote on whether to include a bond issue on the November ballot during a public meeting on Monday at noon in the courthouse. All three commissioners have said they support the construction of a new Law and Justice Center and intend to vote to put it on the ballot.
Commissioner Don Seifert said the county has been working on designs for the building for several years and will continue to receive input going forward to ensure it meets the county’s needs.
Commissioner Joe Skinner pointed out that remodeling the existing building would be expensive and difficult.
“This need is not going away,” he said. “Every year, it’s going to become more and more critical. Even if the voters do vote to do this project, it would be two or three years before it’s complete, and the need is going to be extremely critical at that time.”