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'The only way': Gallatin County comes back to voters with bond for new courts building

Law and Justice tour

Flower planters brighten the entrance to the Law and Justice Center on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. 

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Magdalena “Mitzi” Bowen may be one of the busiest people at the Law and Justice Center. As the standing master for the county’s district courts, she handles contested family law cases and restraining orders on a daily basis.

But she does not have a courtroom of her own.

Bowen has to jump between the three district courtrooms, but the time she gets in those courtrooms isn’t always certain, either. This musical chairs approach is a symptom of the lack of space available in the Law and Justice Center.

“It is so difficult because the biggest complaint that we hear is that ‘you don’t do things fast enough,’ and when you don’t have a space for us to set these hearings as soon as possible, then we can’t adjudicate them,” Bowen said.

And that lack of space coupled with an ever-increasing caseload has created a relentless cycle for Bowen and the district court judges.

“We feel like we are drinking from a fire hose in a lot of these matters because of space and resources,” Bowen said.

This year, the state granted the district a fourth judge, who will be arriving at the Law and Justice by early January of next year. But there is no dedicated courtroom for the incoming judge.

Law and Justice tour

The plaintiff table in Justice Court Judge Rick West's courtroom at the Law and Justice Center is photographed on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. A $29 million bond to fund a new courts building to replace the aging and crowded Law and Justice Center will be included in the upcoming election.

Gallatin County is asking voters for the fourth time over the last decade to back a bond for a new building to address this issue. The price is lower this time around — $29 million — and the design has been downsized into a one-story, 57,000-square-foot facility that would house the district and justice courts. The new building would have space for up to five district courtrooms.

If approved, a taxpayer in the county with a home with an assessed value of $500,000 would pay $33.50 each year.

County bonds need a turnout of 40% or more to pass by a simple majority. If turnout is 30%, the bond would need 60% voter approval to pass. If turnout is below 30%, the bond is rejected.

Local election turnout in 2019 was about 40%, roughly 33% in 2017 and 42% in 2015. The county’s turnout for last year’s federal election was 81%.

Gallatin County Commissioner Zach Brown said he is aware voters may be suffering from “tax fatigue,” but there is no other way to pay for the project. The county can borrow a max of $2 million a year.

“The only way, maybe, we could do it without borrowing more than $2 million is if we saved $30 or $40 million over the course of a couple decades,” Brown said. “In addition to that being financially irresponsible it would be unfair to taxpayers because we’d be taxing people for services they may never use.”

Law and Justice tour

Evidence spills out of boxes in the evidence room at the Law and Justice Center on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. A $29 million bond to fund a new courts building to replace the aging and crowded Law and Justice Center will be included in the upcoming election.

Overstuffed and often rejected

The concrete and wooden bones of a Catholic high school have been on the corner of South 16th Avenue for nearly six decades. Over the years, those bones were transformed into the Law and Justice Center.

Gallatin County purchased the building in the 1970s. The first remodel was in 1979 to convert it for office use. Classrooms became courtrooms with the addition of dividing walls, but reminders of the building’s past are still there today, like an art deco stained glass window with multi-colored opaque blocks in one of the stairwells.

The second — and most recent — remodel happened in 1993 after a fire damaged what used to be the old gym.

Law and Justice tour

Suellen Willis, a deputy clerk of the Justice Court of Gallatin County, works at her desk under shelves filled with case files at the Law and Justice Center on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. A $29 million bond to fund a new courts building to replace the aging and crowded Law and Justice Center will be included in the upcoming election.

Services from the city and county filled the old classrooms. The building is now home to the district courts, justice courts, municipal courts and all the functions that support them, like record keeping, victim services, a pair of cramped jury rooms and others.

And those courts, especially the district courts, do much more than just criminal cases. Marriage licenses, divorce filings, family law, adoptions, misdemeanors, juried trials.

The cases keep coming, too. New cases have increased by about 9% each year since 2017, with last year’s total jumping to 5,688.

A portion of the Bozeman Police Department, the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office, an evidence room that is stuffed to the brim with guns, cellphones, drugs and other items from cases old and new and a small morgue tucked away in the basement all reside under one roof.

Judge John Brown, who was appointed in 2005, was the third district court judge added by the state. Sixteen years ago, he was promised a courtroom of his own.

Brown said he was supposed to have a courtroom on the second floor next to the other two district courtrooms. The county applied for a building permit from the city, but the city required that the entire building be brought up to code before any construction began.

So, rather than get the building up to code at the time, the county built a modular addition — giving Brown his promised courtroom — that sticks out of the front of the Law and Justice Center like a concrete-and-steel sore thumb.

Brown has to travel from his second floor office down two levels of stairs, through a side door and then through the entrance of what he refers to as the “Shed of Justice.”

Law and Justice tour

The courtroom of the Montana Eighteenth District Court Judge John Brown, located in a semi-modular building known colloquially as the 'shed of justice', is seen next to the Law and Justice Center on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. A $29 million bond to fund a new courts building to replace the aging and crowded Law and Justice Center will be included in the upcoming election.

“After every jury trial, I tell them that story every time,” John Brown said. “Once people are here, they go ‘oh, I see why you need a new building.’”

The new building would be built perpendicular to the Law and Justice Center, right where Brown’s “Shed of Justice” is today.

But previous attempts to fund a new building have failed. The first bond was a city-only project in 2014, with a price tag of about $23 million. Then came a city-county bond in 2016 that would have cost $68 million.

In 2018, the city went to voters for a $38 million bond to build the new Public Safety Center on Rouse Avenue. That passed, and construction is expected to finish next June.

A year later, voters rejected a $59 million bond for a county-only courts building.

The project on the ballot this year is smaller, and the ask is much lower, Commissioner Zach Brown said. The new bond costs about $30 million less than what was proposed in 2019, and the size of the new building has been reduced drastically, from 129,000 square feet to 57,000.

“It’s just a tougher sell than schools and parks and open lands and all these other things that the community continues to invest in because people don’t use it everyday,” Zach Brown said. “But man, it’s pretty fundamental to the way our democracy and our economy works.”

Law and Justice tour

Nick Borzak, chief operating officer of Gallatin County, walks through shelves filled with court files from the Montana Eighteenth District Court in a room that was once part of a high school gymnasium at the Law and Justice Center on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. A $29 million bond to fund a new courts building to replace the aging and crowded Law and Justice Center will be included in the upcoming election.

Unstable Ground

Space is opening up in the Law and Justice Center.

Members of the Bozeman Police Department who have offices in the Law and Justice Center, along with the municipal courts, could be out of the building by June next year.

Most of the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office is in the process of moving to the Operations and Training Center — formerly the Zero In Shooting Center — after the county used COVID-19 relief funding from the state to purchase the $5.6 million building last year.

That leaves the district and justice courts — along with other services — behind in the Law and Justice Center. But some empty space won’t solve the building’s structural issues.

A 2017 structural integrity report from Stahly Engineering and Associates indicated that if an earthquake were to rattle the 60-year-old bones of the Law and Justice Center, it could collapse.

The building sits on an area of “high seismicity,” according to the report. Bozeman is boxed in by four fault lines, with the Bridger Fault Line the closest to the city. Damage to structures happens around magnitude 4 or 5 earthquakes, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

An earthquake is considered “major” between magnitudes 7 and 7.9. The last major earthquake to rock the region was the Hebgen Lake earthquake in 1959, with a magnitude of 7.3.

law and justice center

A directory of the Law and Justice Center is posted at an entrance to the building on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. Cadavers pass through a tight corridor in the utilities room en route to the morgue, also located in the basement. A $29 million bond to fund a new courts building to replace the aging and crowded Law and Justice Center will be included in the upcoming election.

The report said that because of the removal of concrete support walls in 1993 in many areas throughout the building, the side-to-side swaying motion caused by an earthquake could lead to structural failure.

Nick Borzak, Gallatin County chief operations officer, said that a structural remodel would require everyone in the building to be moved out. The columns throughout the building would be stripped and then wrapped in concrete and steel, which could reduce space even more.

The report said that modifications and changes, like concrete and steel bracing on columns and walls throughout the building, could be the solution to seismic failure. The cost estimate for that project in 2017 came out to about $13 million.

“I mean what would we do with our judges? It would take about eight months to a year to do it, so where would everybody be displaced,” Borzak said “The practicality of it is that it’s not practical.”

Another report from 1998 had similar findings. That report said that the two remodels did not bring the building up to code.

“The reality is that our facility is borderline condemnable, if we invited city and building inspectors to give us their two cents, it could probably be condemned,” Zach Brown said. “But then we wouldn’t have anywhere else to put our judicial system, and that wouldn’t work either.”

Worst case scenario, an earthquake hits on a Sunday, pancaking the floors of the multi-level building, Judge John Brown said.

“And then the next coming Monday, what do you do?” John Brown said.

Law and Justice tour

The Gallatin County Detention Center is seen from the Law and Justice Center on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. Anyone in custody going to the Law and Justice Center must walk along an exposed sidewalk, seen in the bottom left corner of the picture, to a door adjacent to the only elevator inside the Law and Justice Center. A $29 million bond to fund a new courts building to replace the aging and crowded Law and Justice Center will be included in the upcoming election.

A building not meant to be a courtroom

The Gallatin County Detention Center is connected to the Law and Justice Center by a fenced-in sidewalk. That walkway leads to a side door, which opens up to the only elevator in the building.

Sheriff Dan Springer said that the building does not allow for separation between in-custody defendants being moved from the detention center to a courtroom. Instead, deputies are used as a buffer. Springer said that deputies will go into a hallway to clear it out before moving a defendant through.

“Three deputies bring the guys over and then they part the ocean, then get them in the courtroom and sit them in front,” John Brown said.

The design for the new building would have a basement entrance and its own elevator to bring defendants from the jail up to the first floor where the courts would be.

“You engineer the safety in,” Springer said.

Law and Justice tour

Gallatin County Sheriff Dan Springer sits at his desk at the Law and Justice Center on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. A $29 million bond to fund a new courts building to replace the aging and crowded Law and Justice Center will be included in the upcoming election.

That lack of separation affects the judges, too. Standing Master Bowen said that when she finishes a hearing, she is usually going through the main hallway, robes in hand, walking past people she has issued a judgment on.

She said that a big issue is bumping into someone in a restroom or the hallway after an emotional verdict.

“Or you sentence someone, and the family members are very angry, they confront us and follow us to the parking lot,” Bowen said. “It’s serious.”

There is also the issue of contact between victims, defendants and jurors. The building has only one jury room for the district courts, which is across the hall from Victim Services. The judges have to control the flow of people leaving the court to ensure that victims, the jury and other participants in a trial, like family members, do not come into contact.

All the judges said that they have had instances where someone was yelling profanities at the court after a judgement. In some cases there is security, like at emotionally charged restraining order hearings, and in other cases there are not.

“Every time we have a jury trial, repeatedly during the trial, we’re admonishing the jury not to communicate with anybody involved in the case. And they’re walking back to the jury room while the victim and victim services are walking across the hall,” said Judge Rienne McElyea.

Law and Justice tour

Boxes of Justice Court documents are stacked on cinderblock shelves in a dead-end hallway at the Law and Justice Center on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. A $29 million bond to fund a new courts building to replace the aging and crowded Law and Justice Center will be included in the upcoming election.

The county, and local governments across Montana, are solely reliant on property taxes for money, whether it be for projects for new buildings, or for payroll for staff members. “Tax fatigue” is something that Commissioner Zach Brown is keenly aware of. However, about 8% of a Gallatin County resident’s tax bill goes to the county.

Schools make up the lion’s share at 41%.

One of the last criminal justice-related bonds to pass was over a decade ago, when voters approved a $38 million bond for the Gallatin County Detention Center. That bond could be coming off of the county’s ledger in the next few years, Zach Brown said.

Construction on the new building could begin as soon as February of next year, if the bond passes. And if it doesn’t, another version may appear in the next election cycle.

“We would just keep limping along, and we would continue to have to come back to ask the voters again, because this is the only way it can be done,” Zach Brown said.

Law and Justice tour

The courtroom of Justice Court Judge Bryan Adams is overstuffed with the accoutrements of justice at the Law and Justice Center on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. A $29 million bond to fund a new courts building to replace the aging and crowded Law and Justice Center will be included in the upcoming election.

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Alex Miller is the county and state government reporter and can be reached at amiller@dailychronicle.com or by phone at 406-582-2648.

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