Gallatin County will ask voters on the November ballot to approve a $59 million bond issue to build a new Law and Justice Center for the county sheriff’s office and courts.
The proposed 129,000-square-foot building is estimated to cost $65 million and would include the sheriff’s office, victim services, youth court, the clerk of district court and the justice and district courts. The county has set aside $6 million for the new building, which would replace the one at 615 S. 16th Ave.
If voters approve the project, a person who owns a $200,000 home would see a $34.10 tax increase. The tax impact, however, would likely decline over the 20-year life of the bonds as the county’s population — and number of property owners — grows.
The new justice center would be built to code, making it safer than the existing one, which was constructed in the 1960s.
At Monday’s Gallatin County Commission meeting, county attorney Marty Lambert, District Judge Rienne McElyea and Sheriff Brian Gootkin supported asking voters to approve the project. They cited the existing building’s structural deficiencies, public safety and the county’s growth as reasons to put the question on the ballot.
“There’s just no way we could continue to — or should continue — to put money into that building,” Lambert said.
Commissioner Don Seifert said the county has been working on replacing the Law and Justice Center for roughly 10 years and that the problem wouldn’t go away if the bonds fail. Seifert talked about the state, county and nonprofit services that are housed inside the building, and said it’s important to replace it with a center that would serve the county for years.
“We have a responsibility to those folks, who donate time and are pursuing and applying the law, to provide them with a safe building,” he said.
Commissioner Joe Skinner said the need for two more district judges was a sticking point for him, among other reasons. He said the state wouldn’t approve more judges unless the county has a place to put them.
“If the public does not decide to vote for this, we’ll have to make some very difficult decisions that probably will not be good long-term for those district courts,” Skinner said. “It worries me to have to think about making those decisions.”
Skinner said seven years ago the county was talking about how critical it was to replace the building. He said it’s taken a long time to design a building to get voters’ approval and, if approved, it would likely take another three years before the county could move into the new space.
If voters don’t approve the bonds, Skinner said, the project would be further delayed.
“It’s going to go from critical to crisis at some point soon,” he said.