Election file

A jar of "I voted" stickers is shown in this Chronicle file photo. 

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When Gallatin County voters receive mail ballots in the next couple of weeks, they will be asked to decide whether to increase taxes to replace the Law and Justice Center and whether to make county elections nonpartisan.

Local officials presented the two ballot issues on Wednesday at a forum organized by the Bozeman Public Library, Bozeman League of Women Voters and Bozeman Business & Professional Women.

Law and Justice Center

The November ballot asks voters to approve a $59 million bond issue for a new Law and Justice Center. The bond would increase taxes $34.10 annually for the owner of a home assessed at $200,000. The tax increase would decline over the 20-year life of the bonds if the county’s tax base continues to grow.

The 129,000-square-foot building would house the sheriff’s office, victim services, youth court services, the clerk of district court, the county attorney's office and justice and district courts.

The building would meet the county’s space needs for the next few decades and would improve its ability to serve the public, said commissioner Don Seifert, who spoke in favor of the bond issue.

The existing building is a 1960s-era Catholic high school that doesn’t meet codes and likely wouldn’t withstand a strong earthquake. The public, victims and inmates interact in the hallways, making the facility unsafe. Because the county has grown so much in the last 40 years, it needs two additional district court judges but doesn’t have space to house them.

“It’s failing structurally. It’s failing operationally,” Seifert said.

Rep. Tom Burnett, R-Bozeman, spoke against the bond issue. He said increasing taxes for the next 20 years to pay for the Law and Justice Center means the county can’t use that money for other services that may be more pressing, such as additional law enforcement officers, road improvements or a new wastewater treatment plant.

He conceded that the existing building has shortcomings but said the county could add on to it to make space for more judges. He also said other counties make do with buildings that are in even worse shape.

Nonpartisan Elections

Voters will also decide whether Gallatin County should change its elections from partisan to nonpartisan.

If a simple majority of voters opt for nonpartisan county elections, there will be a single primary for the 10 county offices — the three county commissioners, county attorney, clerk of district court, sheriff, treasurer, auditor, superintendent of schools and clerk and recorder. The two candidates who receive the most votes for each office would go on to the general election.

Candidates would still be able to reference political parties during their campaigns and to receive donations from parties, but the ballot wouldn’t include party affiliations.

Commissioner Joe Skinner said he plans to vote to make county elections nonpartisan because he thinks party affiliations are irrelevant to the work elected officials do. Instead, voters should select candidates based on their qualifications, experience and ability to do the job.

During his 15 years as a commissioner, Skinner said the best elected officials he’s known are the ones who make decisions based on whether they’ll benefit their constituents rather than what a political party might want.

Emma Bode, a Bozeman resident, spoke against making county elections nonpartisan. She cited research that indicates when voters don’t have party affiliations to help them choose candidates, they are less likely to vote and are more likely to use irrelevant information — like race or religion — in their decision. Candidates with more name recognition — often the incumbents or those who pay for more advertising — also have a significant advantage.

Having party affiliations on the ballot gives voters essential information because they signal candidates’ values and indicate the sorts of decisions they might make in office, she said.

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Perrin Stein can be reached at 406-582-2648 or at pstein@dailychronicle.com. Follow her on Twitter @PerrinStein.

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