Montana County Explores Justice Center Replacement

By Lisa Kopochinski

BOZEMAN, Mont.—Following the failure of a $59 million bond issue last November for a new Law and Justice Center, Gallatin County officials are now exploring new options.

In a recent article, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported that county officials said they cannot keep asking voters for the same project and need to find alternative ways of improving a facility they say is aging, unsafe and cramped.

“I think doing the same thing again is the definition of insanity,” said Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin in a statement. “The public has told us it’s not going to work. I think it’s good to maybe do a reset and think about everything once again.”

County officials are considering putting this project on hold for a couple of years. Instead, they may ask voters in the primary election on June 2 to increase the mill levy for the 911 Dispatch Center by two mills, and to raise the mill levy for Gallatin County Search and Rescue by two mills.

A mill levy is an assessed property tax rate employed by local governments to raise revenue in order to cover for annual expenses. One mill is one dollar per $1,000 dollars of assessed property value.

County Administrator Jim Doar said this increased funding would help address operational and capital needs. Additionally, county commissioners told local media that voters may be more inclined to support the 911 Dispatch Center and Search and Rescue than they were a new Law and Justice Center.

“I think the public might see them as more tangible,” said Commissioner Don Seifert.

Local media also reported that at some point, county commissioners may ask for funding for a multi-step replacement to the Law and Justice Center. If they did, they would first ask voters to approve a new courts building, which would accommodate the additional district court judges that state lawmakers may approve for Gallatin County during their next session in 2021. They would later seek approval for a new building for the Sheriff’s Office. The projects would accommodate only the offices that are now in the Law and Justice Center.

Said Commissioner Joe Skinner, “I don’t think we can ask voters for a bond the same size or larger. “I think it would be more palatable to ask for a replacement to the Law and Justice Center is phasing it.”

Skinner also said breaking the project up could be challenging because voters could approve the first phase and then deny the second.

County officials may consider hiring an outside firm to survey county residents on why they rejected the bond issue for a new Law and Justice Center and which projects they might be more inclined to support.

“The people have said no to this proposal, so we need to listen and respond to that in what we bring forward to them next time,” added County Commissioner Scott MacFarlane.