Q: What is the bond I am voting on?
A: The County is asking voters to approve a $29 million bond to help pay to replace the current Law and Justice Center due to its compromised structural integrity and inadequate space.
The new facility will house four District Courts, two Justice Courts, Clerks of Court, Youth Court and Probation, Standing Master and Self-Help Law Center, and a public community room.
Currently, there are only three District Court courtrooms and no space to house the additional judicial position recently appropriated by the State.
Q: Why do we need a new district courthouse?
A: It’s a disaster waiting to happen.
For starters, the building has critical flaws: its structural integrity is compromised and does not meet current structural codes, it lacks a fire suppression system and does not provide for security as an integral part of its design. This endangers thousands of citizens who utilize the building every month. This affects those who work there daily serving our community, those serving their civic jury duty, and everyone conducting business with the courts and law enforcement.
The current Law and Justice Center was built in 1961 to serve as a Catholic high school. The County has done a great job utilizing this building since it was retrofitted into a law enforcement and courts facility in the 1970s, but a remodel that removed supporting columns coupled with other structural inadequacies seriously threatens its integrity.
We’ve learned from the recent collapse of the condominium in Surfside, Florida, that responsible people knew the building was at risk but failed to make needed changes. Our community cannot afford to make the same mistake.
The building’s compromised structure isn’t the only threat to our community and its members. Constitutional rights may also be violated.
Victims may have their rights violated because the current building provides no secured separation between them and those accused of committing the crimes against them. Also, without complete separation between jury members, the public, and counselors for each side, violation of the accused’s rights may be cause for a mistrial due to accidental or deliberate influence.
Community members utilizing the judicial system may also feel emotionally violated due to no separation between:
- Civil case plaintiffs and respondents
- Youth in need of protection and the adults in their cases
- Victims seeking protective order information and citizens filing pro se (without counsel), all seeking services from the Self-Help Center, and anyone walking by
- Minors in detention and adult convicts, as well as anyone walking by the minor
- Adopting parents, their children, and all of the above
Q: Are those the only reasons we need a new court building?
A: No. The new building will ease the logjam of cases currently costing our community time, money, and emotional suffering.
The Law and Justice Center does not have enough courtrooms or administrative space – which it’s constitutionally mandated to provide to its state-allocated judges – to handle current caseloads. Statistically, Gallatin County’s caseload is large enough to fill the dockets of six, full-time courts. The Law and Justice Center currently has three for both its district and justice courts.
The logjam of both criminal cases – which courts are legally required to prioritize – and civil cases costs the community in the following ways:
1. Civil court cases are significantly impacted and in danger of grinding to a halt. Wait times for civil cases can stretch into years. These delays can cause financial and emotional ruin. They affect:
- Business owners who risk bankruptcy waiting for their cases to be heard
- Divorce and custody cases
- Youth in need of protection
- Orders of protection
- Mental health cases
- District court appeals
Justice court, which hears misdemeanor cases and small claims actions, and performs weddings, experiences the same impacts.
The new court building will enable the county to accommodate the additional judge recently allocated by the State and ease some of these burdens.
2. Extended wait times for criminal trials cost taxpayers. When detainees spend longer in the detention center or are released on monitoring, additional expenses are incurred by taxpayers.
3. Victims involved in criminal trials may wait long periods for their day in court or may simply never have it (in the case of a mistrial or due process violation). For those seeking justice and a milestone from which they can move forward with their lives, their day in court becomes a too distant point on the horizon.
Q: Why is this relevant to you?
A: Not everyone needs access to the courts, but the new courts facility would be a building for the whole community. This is where people come for many of the significant moments of life—from adoption, to jury duty, to divorce, and to seek protection from abusive partners. All civil cases and both small and large claims are heard by district and justice court judges. So, all residents of the county must use this building to handle any civil matters.
Q: How much will the building cost?
A: Less than the cost of construction. Here’s why. The first time this building was proposed, the price was $60 million. By using value engineering, strategic design, and a smaller footprint, the new construction plan will reduce the cost to $38 million. But taxpayers will pay less. Gallatin County has been saving for this project and will cover about 25% of the construction at no additional cost to the taxpayers. Also, the county was able to purchase a new facility for sheriff’s office operations with existing funds, making this proposal even smaller.
Therefore, the total bond—that is, the cost to the taxpayers—has been reduced to $29 million.
Q: Who will pay for the project?
A: Property tax will pay for the bond. Homeowners will pay $6.70/$100k of their assessed property value. This translates to about $33.50/year for a single-family home in Gallatin County with an assessed value of $500k. Because of rapid growth countywide, the burden on individual property owners will decrease over time as the cost of the bond is spread across a larger population. Renters may or may not see any direct impact of this cost on their rent.
Q: What is the cost of waiting?
A: In addition to the human cost of an inefficient, unsafe justice center, construction costs in Gallatin County are increasing by 10% year over year. This same project proposed next year, or in the future, is likely to cost much more - and the need for a new building is not going away.
Q: Didn’t we just pay for a new court building?
A: No. Bozeman voters approved the Bozeman Public Safety Center in 2018 to house City of Bozeman law enforcement, firefighters, and municipal courts which oversee citations and other municipal infractions.
This proposed bond is for district courts, which see every civil case like business and family law disputes, adoptions, youth in need of protection, orders of protection, and mental health. It also sees all felony criminal cases, including for City residents. The new building will also house justice courts, which perform weddings and hear misdemeanor cases and small claims actions.
Q: Don’t we pay a lot of taxes?
A: Yes, you do, and we’re grateful for your contribution. Property tax will fund the new building. The lion’s share of your property taxes go to support schools. For a typical Bozeman resident, only around 7% of your property taxes go to Gallatin County. (See the diagram below).
Q: Is there an alternative option?
A: No. It is not economically or practically feasible to remodel the building we now use. Making any change would require the whole building to be upgraded to the most recent structural code. Costs to remodel would far exceed the cost for the new proposed court building and would involve moving all staff out of the building and finding enough proper space to rent for a year while the building is renovated. This, of course, would disrupt the judicial process.
For further information, please contact us by email or phone at:
firstname.lastname@example.org (406) 582-3000
Paid for by Gallatin County
Committee Treasurer Whitney Bermes
311 W. Main St.
Bozeman, MT 59715