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Gallatin County To Vote On New Law And Justice Center Funding

The evidence storage room in Gallatin County's Law and Justice Center is running out of room, Bozeman, Montana, August 14, 2019.
Rachel Cramer
Yellowstone Public Radio
The evidence storage room in Gallatin County's Law and Justice Center is running out of room, Bozeman, Montana, August 14, 2019.

Issues like confidentiality, safety and smells from the morgue have plagued the Gallatin County Law and Justice Center for years, according to employees housed in the building. This November, Gallatin County voters will decide whether to fund a bonding measure to replace the Bozeman facility.

On the third floor of the Law and Justice Center, the evidence storage room is packed full of boxes and vanilla envelopes.

"You can see here, all the stuff on the floor. It’d be nice to have [it] up on the shelves so you can actually walk through here," says Dan Springer, undersheriff of Gallatin County.

He says this building, which used to be an old high school built in 1961, isn’t cut out to meet the county’s current and future needs. It’s too small to accomodate the increase in court cases and staff that come with a growing population.

A fire in the 80s destroyed stored evidence because the room didn’t — and still doesn’t — have sprinklers. The building’s not up-to-code with accessibility, and it’s poorly designed. Victims, inmates, jury members and the general public use the same hallways and elevators.

Springer says this kind of contact can make people feel uncomfortable or upset. It can lead to arguments, assaults, even escape attempts. There are other issues, as well.

Springer says the venting system in the morgue is a concern for everyone in the building, especially if a body has been decomposing for a while.

"The fan is right outside the windows here, which then blows up into the law enforcement buildings into the court buildings, into everything, and the preference would be that we’d have a new facility that would allow for venting elsewhere. A number of calls from judges telling me, 'Can we do something, please?'" says Springer.

The County has been working to get a new state-of-the-art building for years. It tried to pass a bond in 2016 for a joint facility with the city, but it failed. So the city decided to build its own separate building with a bond approved by Bozeman voters last year.

After unanimous approval from commissioners Monday, Gallatin County is asking voters this November to support a $59 million bond to help pay for a new Law and Justice Center. The two-story, 129,000-square-foot building would be built on the same plot of land as the current facility and connect to the jail through an underground passageway.

It would more than double the space to house the sheriff’s office, district and juvenile courts, victims services, the clerk of district court’s office and the county attorney’s office, which is currently in a separate building across the parking lot.

Gallatin County Commissioner Don Siefert says having more space means the county could also get another district judge to deal with the growing backlog of court cases.

"We realize that going and asking the public for tax dollars is a difficult thing to do, but we feel that for the requirements of city government or county government, it’s a worthwhile project, and it’s a needed project," says Siefert. "We are at a critical point utilizing this building now, and we don’t want it to become a crisis."

Some space in the Law and Justice Center could open up in a few years when Bozeman’s police department and its municipal courts move into a new Public Safety Center being built across town, but Sheriff Brian Gootkin says the problems will still remain.

"People say, 'Once the City leaves, you’ll have all the room in the world.' Well, we’ve had study upon study show that just to retrofit this building is so expensive, it’s not worth the money to do that. Plus, this isn’t even big enough for everything else that we need. The smartest, financially-responsible thing to do is that new building and then tear this thing down," says Gootkin.

If Gallatin County voters approve the 20-year bond, the owner of a house with a $200,000 assessment would pay $34.10 the first year. That annual cost is expected to go down as the interest on the bond is paid off and as more people move to the county. 

Gootkin says with this funding, construction on a new Law and Justice Center could begin as early as spring 2020. The bond issue will be on the Gallatin County ballot this November.