Gallatin County officials hope the third time will be the charm as they ask voters to approve a $29 million bond issue to pay for a new courts building in Bozeman.
If the bond passes on Nov. 2, a single-story, 57,000-square-foot building will be built on the north side of the Law and Justice Center at an estimated cost of $38 million. The price in excess of the bond will be covered by savings and anticipated bond premiums.
Voters turned down two other significantly more expensive proposals to replace the Law and Justice Center in 2016 and 2019. But county commissioners, hopeful that voters will feel differently about the most recent iteration, have been making presentations around the county to educate the public about what they say is a critical need.
At a recent Belgrade City Council meeting, Commissioner Joe Skinner noted that the Legislature approved a fourth District Court for Gallatin County, and though the county is constitutionally mandated to provide space for it, “There’s nowhere to put them – nowhere.”
If the bond issue passes, the new building will house four District Courts, two Justice Courts, Youth Court and Probation, as well as areas for offices and legal services.
“Everything courts is going to be there,” Skinner said. “You or your family are going to be in that building at one time or another.”
Commissioners say that not only is the existing Law and Justice Center too small to meet the county’s needs, but the building – a former Catholic High School built in the 1960s – cannot be properly retrofitted for secure court services.
“Structurally, the building is unsafe. It’s not earthquake-worthy, and it’s built to 1960s code,” Skinner said. “The current Law and Justice Center is a disaster waiting to happen.”
He stressed that it’s also impossible to securely manage court business in the cramped space.
“What’s really unsafe are the operations that go on there,” he said. “The problem is not going to be solved by ignoring it. There’s really no Plan B.”
The Nov. 2 ballot measure has been significantly pared down in size, scope and cost from the previous bond proposals rejected by voters. That’s possible, in part, because four divisions of the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office are moving out of the Law and Justice Center to the former Zero In shooting center in Four Corners, and because Bozeman voters approved a $38 million bond issue for construction a new Public Safety Center to house the city’s municipal courts and other services.
If it passes, owners of homes with an assessed market value of $500,000 will be assessed an additional $33.50 per year in property taxes.