When inmates leave the Gallatin County jail for hearings, they walk along a pathway separated from a public parking area by a fence, and after entering the Law and Justice Center, they take the same staircase, hallway and elevator as the public to reach the courtrooms.

“These are vulnerable areas,” said Sheriff Brian Gootkin. “Ideally, inmates and the public would always be separated. Here, they are never separated and there is nothing we can do in the current building to change that.”

In January, Gootkin added a screening checkpoint at the building’s main entrance to prevent people from bringing weapons inside. By June, deputies had stopped people with knives, guns and a Taser.

“Even though we have a screening area, that doesn’t mean anything,” Gootkin said. “Someone could be sitting in the hallway and try to attack or free an inmate.”

To address these safety issues and other shortcomings of the Law and Justice Center, Gallatin County will ask voters in November to approve a $59 million bond for a new building. The bond would increase taxes $34.10 annually for the owner of a $200,000 home. However, the tax burden would likely decline over the 20-year life of the bonds as the county’s tax base continues to grow.

The county also plans to contribute $6 million toward the $65 million building.

Voters have turned down similar proposals to replace the Law and Justice Center. County officials, who have been planning for a new building for years, are hoping this time the public will recognize the nearly 60-year-old former Catholic high school no longer meets the county’s needs, but they’re concerned the bond issue may fail.

For the bond to pass in November, state law requires voter turnout reach a certain level. If turnout is 30% or less, the bond issue automatically fails. If it’s between 30% and 40%, it must pass with 60% approval. If turnout is higher than 40%, a simple majority is needed for approval.

The average turnout rate for the last three municipal elections — 2017, 2015 and 2013 — was 41.7%, with the lowest turnout in 2017 at 33.5%, likely because there were no bond issues or mill levies on the ballot. The commissioners said they are worried about turnout but think a mail-ballot election coupled with outreach efforts will bring people to the polls.

A new building is critical for the Sheriff’s Office, Gootkin said. The Law and Justice Center likely wouldn’t withstand a strong earthquake, which would mean the sheriff’s office might be unable to respond to the public during a natural disaster. There is a shortage of offices and space for records. And the building’s configuration means the coroner’s office, which Gootkin also runs, has to transport bodies from a parking lot in full view of courtroom windows to the basement for autopsies.

Even though Gootkin sees the need for a new building every day, he is concerned voters may reject the county project. He worries about confusion over the city’s new public safety center for which Bozeman voters approved a $36.9 million bond issue last November. Several people have congratulated him on the city’s building, thinking it will meet his needs, he said.

From her office on the floor below the sheriff, Clerk of Justice Court Miranda Johnson constantly deals with the building’s lack of space. One of the two Justice Court courtrooms only fits 17 people, meaning hearings are often standing-room-only. Clerks’ desks are crammed into the office. One is even in a jury room. The public computer, which people use to access court documents, is in a jury deliberation room, making it inaccessible at times.

“We do a lot of shuffling, using what we can as best we can,” she said. “So it would be amazing to have a new building, but as a taxpayer, I realize it’s a lot of money to ask for.”

The proposed 129,000 square-foot new building would be almost twice the size of the existing Law and Justice Center. Offices like Johnson’s will be bigger, and there will be space for future expansion.

The larger building would have space for five district court courtrooms — two more than in the existing building — because a state assessment indicates additional judges are necessary to absorb the county’s growing caseload.

The three district court judges declined to comment for this story.

Because the Law and Justice Center doesn’t meet building codes, adding courtrooms — or doing any other renovation — would require bringing the whole building up to code, which county officials have said would be expensive.

Sitting in his office recently, County Attorney Marty Lambert paged through documents he’s kept over the years that indicate the county has been struggling since 1999 with how to bring the building up to code.

“I’m amazed we are still using that building as our courts building,” he said. “We are 20 years down the road and still don’t have this taken care of.”

With a larger building, there would be room for Lambert’s office, which is now across the parking lot from the Law and Justice Center in the Judge Guenther Memorial Center. Being near the courts and sheriff’s office would increase efficiency and improve communication between county offices, he said.

In the new building, his office would be near victim services, which he oversees. It’s now on the third floor of the Law and Justice Center across from jury rooms.

Stacy Wesen, director of victim services, has employees working two-to-an-office as the program has grown, making it difficult to find confidential and comfortable places to meet with crime victims. The new building would have additional offices, a kitchen, a bathroom, a waiting area and a secure, secluded entrance.

“A lot of times victims are anxious about being here,” Wesen said. “And during trials, it’s a logistical nightmare because we can’t have any interactions between victims and the jury, but we right across the hall from each other, sharing a bathroom.”

While Wesen and Lambert believe a new building is essential for providing adequate services to crime victims, they, too, are uncertain whether voters will support the project.

“I’ve gotten my hopes up many times, and I’m finding myself doing that again,” Wesen said. “I really hope that this time we can move forward with this because it’s hard being in this building knowing it’s not structurally sound and not meeting the public’s needs.”

Lambert said he recognizes voters may not find the shortcomings of the Law and Justice Center compelling enough to justify a tax increase, especially at a time when they are regularly being asked to increase taxes to accommodate the county’s growing population.

The county and city have been discussing replacing the Law and Justice Center for years. In 2014, voters turned down a $23.8 million bond issue for a city-only building. Then in 2016, voters rejected a $68.3 million bond issue for a joint city-county project. Last year, the county and city again discussed moving forward with a joint building, but the city ultimately went ahead with its own public safety center.

The county commissioners are now preparing for another ballot measure. To reach voters, the county plans to create a webpage, have a booth at farmers markets and the Belgrade Fall Festival and organize tours of the existing building.

By law, the county can’t use public time, facilities, equipment, supplies or money to support or oppose an election issue, so all its efforts must be educational. In November, after the city’s public safety center bond passed, Bozeman resident and Public Service Commissioner Roger Koopman sued the city, accusing officials of illegally using public time and money to advocate for the building and asking the court to void the election. The city settled the lawsuit, which included paying Koopman $21,955 in attorney fees, to avoid delaying construction.

“We don’t even want to have the perception of impropriety. We want to make sure we don’t cross that line,” Commissioner Joe Skinner said about the county’s outreach plans. “The lawsuit made us very aware that people watch that, and we don’t even want to be close to the line.”

No local groups have yet come forward to advocate for the project like Friends of the Law and Justice Center did for previous elections.

The commissioners are optimistic their efforts will prompt voters to fund a new building.

“I think the voters see the need for this project,” Commissioner Don Seifert said. “With the growth in the county, this is not going to go away. We’re at a really critical stage right now.”

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

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