If not now, when?
That is a question that we keep asking ourselves when we think about the need to replace our county’s aging Law and Justice Center.
For the last four decades, Gallatin County and Bozeman law enforcement professionals and all court operations have been housed in a facility that was retrofitted from a private Catholic high school.
When we moved into the Law and Justice Center, the entire population of Gallatin County was roughly 47,000. Now it is over 112,000 and growing, and we are still confined in the same, unsafe and inefficient building.
And while the old school has served us well over these years, it has become abundantly clear that it has long outlived its life – so clear that the residents of Bozeman approved a bond for their own Public Safety Center. The city’s law enforcement and court operations will be moving out in the coming years.
But the offices that will remain at the Law and Justice Center – the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office, Victim Services, Justice Court, District Court, Youth Probation, County Attorney’s Office, Coroner and Clerk of District Court – will serve ALL residents of Gallatin County.
And our residents and visitors deserve a safer, more efficient and more sustainable building, and one that will serve us, our children and our grandchildren for decades to come.
The building is not safe
Structurally, the Law and Justice Center has numerous safety issues. It needs a fire suppression system and is not up to modern seismic codes. It could not withstand an earthquake.
Schematically, there are other issues that compromise safety inside the building.
Inmates are moved from the Detention Center to their court appearances in public hallways – the same hallways crime victims use, the same hallways citizens use when coming in for things like marriage licenses, the same hallways jurors in trials use.
We have done what we can to improve the safety, but renovating is not cost effective and, at the end of the day, we would still be in a repurposed high school.
With more than 500 people visiting the building each day, and over 130 employees who work from the facility, it is far past time we improve the safety for each and every person who walks through the door.
The building does not meet our space needs
Even when the Bozeman offices move to their Public Safety Center across town, we will continue to have space problems.
The biggest of those space problems is finding room for our District Court judges. Gallatin County currently has three District Court judges, one of whom is housed in an annex that we lovingly refer to as the “Shed of Justice.”
Based on caseloads that are currently before our three judges, we are in need of at least two more District Court judges from the state to adequately handle all the cases we have. But the county is responsible for housing those judges and the state won’t consider giving us more unless we have enough space. Plans for the new facility call for room for those two additional judges.
But more importantly, what little space we would gain doesn’t do anything to address the far more pressing safety issues.
The building does a disservice to our citizens
The Law and Justice Center is not just a place where criminals are prosecuted. Law-abiding citizens use that building every day.
People report for jury duty, apply for concealed weapons permits, get marriage licenses, deal with a litany of civil issues, get paperwork to get their dog out of the animal shelter, get a VIN inspection on a vehicle they just bought, to get help if they are the unfortunate victim of a crime, and much more.
The county and state provide essential services from that building. As our county has continued to grow, so have the demand for those services. Folks who use those services deserve a facility that will meet their needs, now and well into the future.
If not now, when?
The need for a new Law and Justice Center is critical and is not going away. The county will continue growing and see an increase in need for the services we provide. At the same time, the cost to construct a new building will keep going up.
We can tackle this problem head on now, or continue kicking the can down the road and leave crumbling infrastructure for our kids and our grandkids.
So again, we ask – if not now, when?
Voters will be asked to decide on a $59 million bond to replace the Gallatin County Law and Justice Center. Ballots will be mailed Oct. 16 and must be returned by 8 p.m. on Nov. 5. For more information on the bond, please visit www.gallatin.mt.gov and click the “Law and Justice Center” button on the home page.