BOZEMAN, MT — BOZEMAN - With ballots cast and counted on Tuesday night, General Election Night 2021 marked a few firsts, one of them being the Gallatin County Law and Justice Center getting approved by voters, per preliminary results.
It’s been seven years since the first time the Law and Justice Center made it onto the Gallatin County ballot.
Since then, three different versions have failed on ballots to follow, but on Tuesday night, the old Law and Justice Center’s days were officially numbered according to the preliminary tally cast by voters.
“The public told us that the price was too high last time and the commissioners did a fabulous job of bringing that price down,” says Gallatin County Sheriff Dan Springer.
For Springer, it’s been the home for his department for longer than he’s been sheriff, but he’s spent enough time in it beforehand to say he knows its issues well: 25 years.
“The problem is the safety issues that came with the courts,” Springer says. “For 25 years, I’ve witnessed some escapes, I’ve witnessed some arguments. I’ve witnessed contempt of court and those kinds of things between witnesses and victims and whatnot. All of those issues? It’s nice to see that we are hopefully going to engineer some of those safety measures in.”
“The first architecture report that highlighted issues with this facility was published when I was in third grade,” says Zach Brown, one of Gallatin County’s commissioners.
To know the weight behind the vote’s passing, Brown says you have to look at the road it took to get here.
“We’ve run our courts out of a 1960’s Catholic high school for the last 40 years and we’ve made do with what we’ve got, but the community deserves a safe and efficient facility that was designed to host courts and our judicial system,” Brown says.
In 2014, the proposal was a city bond and mill levy combo, rejected by half of the voters that made it to the polls.
The L&J returned to the ballot in 2016; this time, a city-county tag-team effort but again denied by the majority on Election Night.
The most recent effort: 2018, the same year voters approved the $37 million new Public Safety Center.
The county’s measure failed by 55 percent.
However, this year: strike that and reverse it.
Fifty-five percent of voters in preliminary results approved the new Gallatin Courts project, a 57,000 square foot upgrade from what Sheriff Springer says is a litany of issues.
“The fact that the jurors and the victims and the suspect, they all end up walking in the same hallways and that’s always a concern,” Springer says. “Anytime they might communicate with each other is a possibility of a mistrial or let alone some kind of violent act which is what we are concerned about.”
The $29 million bond will all go toward the project starting early next year, with building design teams meeting as soon as Wednesday.
“Our hope is that we can get the building done in two construction seasons, which would have us moving in maybe in December of 2024, which in the context of public building processes is light-speed,” Brown says.
Brown says shovels could be hitting the dirt as soon as February.
Courts can continue in the meantime in the L&J.
“There have been 25 years of great memories in this building and I’m excited for the next whatever number of years as we build the next one,” Springer says.