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Gallatin County Law & Justice Center bond returns to general election, cost 'slashed in half'

Gallatin Co. Law and Justice Center.jpg
Posted at 6:33 PM, Oct 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-08 14:21:25-04

BOZEMAN, MT — UPDATE: 10/8/2021, 12:15 PM:

The Gallatin County Commissioners released the following letter to voters, regarding the bond to replace the Law and Justice Center:

Oct. 8, 2021

Gallatin County voters: we heard you.

In two different elections, you rejected proposals to replace your aging Law and Justice Center. And we understand. The price tags for those proposed bonds were a lot to swallow.

But we listened. And we’re coming back to you this November, voters, with a project that is less expensive for you and still addresses the needs of our courts – a critical pillar of our democracy and economy that we are obligated to provide for our citizens.

In this November’s election, Gallatin County is asking voters to decide on a bond to replace the current Law and Justice Center in Bozeman. The bond would pay for a Gallatin County courts building that will house four District Courts, two Justice Courts, Clerks of Court, Youth Court and Probation, Standing Master, Self-Help Law Center, a security detail office, and a public community and jury assembly room.

Instead of coming to voters asking for $71 million or $59 million like we did in the past, we have pared the design and functions of this building down to a simple courts building with an ask of voters we feel is more reasonable: $29 million. This new building is the only cost-effective solution to Gallatin County’s long overdue need for safer and more efficient courts.

The current building is unsafe and a disaster waiting to happen.

The Law and Justice Center is a cinderblock building with no rebar that was built in the 1960s as a Catholic high school. It was never designed to be a courts facility.

It is structurally unsound, does not have a fire suppression system, and is missing secured separation between crime victims and their accused, jurors and counselors, family members in dispute, and the public from all of these groups.

These amount to a disaster waiting to happen to the hundreds of community members who work in and enter the building each day.

The current building is too small and the resulting logjam of cases is hurting us county-wide.

Gallatin County’s District Courts handle a civil and criminal caseload requiring at least seven judges. Three District Court judges are currently shuffling that load.

The State has given us a fourth District Court judge. But Gallatin County is responsible for providing that new judge and their support staff with a workplace and we have nowhere to put them.

Without adequate personnel and space to hear and process all these cases, the result is a logjam pushing some cases months and years out.

The impact of this logjam on civil cases is devastating. Highly emotional family law cases can be dragged out for years. Small businesses have gone bankrupt before seeing their day in court.

Justice delayed is justice denied. We need better space to provide the access to justice our citizens are entitled to.

The need for a new building is not going away so the county has worked hard to reduce costs.

We get it. Voters are tired of paying more taxes. We are taxpayers ourselves and feel your pain.

But the county is constitutionally required to provide these services and spaces. Courts are not optional. They are a necessary pillar of our democracy. And an update for our local courts is long overdue – architects told the county in 1999 that the current building is structurally unsafe.

The cost for taxpayers is $6.70 for every $100,000 of assessed property value (NOT what Zillow says your house could sell for). So a home assessed at $500,000 would pay $33.50 annually, for example.

That cost for will decrease as the cost of the bond is spread across a larger population as our county continues growing and more taxpayers share the burden.

We have worked hard to reduce this project’s cost by using savings and existing funds, finding creative funding mechanisms, and spending federal funds to buy a new sheriff’s office building in Four Corners to reduce the size and cost of this building.

If this bond does not pass, we are uncertain of exactly how we will move forward. But what we do know is that any other options will be more expensive and inefficient, costing taxpayers more in money and time over the long haul.

Gallatin County citizens deserve safer and more efficient courts, and a new building is the only cost-effective solution to this longstanding issue. For more information on the bond, visit gallatin.mt.gov.

Ballots for the Nov. 2 election will be mailed to Gallatin County active registered voters on Oct. 13. They are due back no later than 8 PM on Election Day. For more information on voting, visit gallatinvotes.com.

Scott MacFarlane, Joe Skinner, Zach Brown

Gallatin County Commissioners

PREVIOUS:

In just about a week, on Wednesday, Oct. 13, ballots for the November general election will be sent out across Gallatin County.

And once again, a familiar item is back on those ballots: an effort to replace the Law and Justice Center.

It’s a bond issue that has made it to the ballot for several Novembers in the past: a new building for the Gallatin County Law and Justice Center.

At times, that price tag has gone up to above $60 million.

Commissioners this year say they’ve cut that in half but to show the “why,” you have to go inside.

“If there were an earthquake, a severe earthquake, this building would likely crumble into an old pile of 70-year-old concrete,” says Zach Brown, Gallatin County commissioner.

You have either heard it or seen it on a ballot at least two times before.

Commissioner Brown says it is that “tax fatigue” that is being recognized when the board says they’ve found a way to slice more than half of what would be needed to replace the aging Law and Justice Center.

“We’ve reduced this to just down to a plain courts building and I think that’s really just the basic need here,” Brown says. “The Law and Justice Center was a 1960s Catholic high school. It was never designed to be a judicial facility. It’s structurally unsafe.”

According to Commissioner Brown, this bond’s difference from last year’s L&J bond is a difference of millions.

When you combine the changes together back in 2019, the commission asked for $60 million.

This year, you combine the 2020-21 figures together, they are asking for $29 million.

Part of that reason is, according to commissioners, because the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office will be moving to their new location at the former Zero-In Shooting Range in Four Corners and is not a part of that budget, so $38 million could be cut from the last general election’s figure.

What that means for you: take the property taxes on a home for $500,000 a year that has been assessed in the market.

Your taxes would then increase by about $33.50 per year.

If the bond passes, Brown says shovels could hit the dirt by next spring.

They will be forced to return to the drawing board if it fails, which, with each time it has, Brown says the problems get worse.

“If there were any other way for us to get this project done and meet this basic need without asking the voters to pony up, we would do that, but this is the tool that we have,” Brown says.

Ballots for the 2021 general election will be mailed out on Wednesday, October 13.

You have to get them back in by no later than 8 p.m. on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 2.