Gallatin County voters have turned down a $59 million bond issue for a new Law and Justice Center.

In preliminary totals Tuesday night, 55.1% of voters had rejected a property tax increase to pay for the new building, while 44.9% supported it.

“I’m disappointed. I really am,” said Commissioner Don Seifert shortly after the early results came out. “It’s a need that’s not going to go away tomorrow morning. … We’ll have to find a way to look at this project in a way that we can get approved by voters.”

The commissioners will meet later this week to discuss their next steps, which will likely include placing the Law and Justice Center on the ballot again. Renovations to the existing building are prohibitively expensive and there isn’t a way to build a new facility without taxpayer support, Seifert said.

In addition to seeking a bond issue, the county has been setting aside money for a new Law and Justice Center. The commissioners had planned to contribute $6 million to the $65 million project if the bond issue had passed. Seifert said the commissioners will discuss their budget for the Law and Justice Center soon.

If the Law and Justice Center had been approved, the $59 million bond issue would have increased taxes $34.10 annually for the owner of a home assessed at $200,000. The tax impact likely would have declined over the 20-year life of the bonds as the county’s population — and the number of property owners — continues to grow.

The county has spent years developing plans for a new Law and Justice Center and working with county employees and elected officials to understand their need for a new building.

Over the last several months, ThinkOne Architecture has developed a design for the proposed two-story building, which would be near the existing Law and Justice Center on South 16th Avenue. It would house the sheriff’s office, victims services, the coroner’s office, district court, justice court, the county attorney’s office and youth court. The 129,000-square-foot facility would have room for future expansion and would likely meet the county’s needs for the next few decades.

This isn’t the first time voters have refused the Law and Justice Center. In 2014, they turned down a $23.8 million bond issue for a city-only project. Two years later, they rejected a $68.3 million bond issue for a joint city-county building. In 2018, the county and city again discussed a joint building, but the city eventually went forward with plans for its own public safety center on North Rouse Avenue.

Last November, voters approved the $36.9 million bond issue for the Bozeman Public Safety Center. The city is moving forward with the construction of that new building, which will include the police department, municipal courts, victims services and the fire crew now at Fire Station No. 1.

The city’s new building will free up space in the city-county shared Law and Justice Center, but the county wants a new building because the existing one doesn’t meet safety standards and isn’t large enough, Seifert said.

Nonpartisan elections

Gallatin County elections will remain partisan.

On Tuesday, voters rejected a ballot measure to change the format of county elections from partisan to nonpartisan. Based on preliminary election results, 54.6% of voters chose to keep county elections as they are while 45.4% opted for nonpartisan elections.

“This is a government of the people and by the people and for the people, and the people said they prefer partisan elections, so that’s what we’ll do,” Seifert said. “...We put this on the ballot because we felt it was an important choice for the voters to make, and regardless of the outcome, they made their choice.”

County elections will continue to have Republican and Democratic primaries for the 10 partisan offices — the three county commissioners, county attorney, clerk of district court, sheriff, treasurer, auditor, superintendent of schools and clerk and recorder. The candidates from each party with the most votes will face each other in the general election.

The county’s five nonpartisan offices — district and justice court judges — will remain nonpartisan.

This summer, the Gallatin County Democrats came out against nonpartisan elections, saying party affiliations give voters the information they need to choose candidates. Without them, voters may not vote or may select candidates based on traits like incumbency, race or gender.

The county commissioners have said they often hear their constituents ask why county elections are partisan, so they wanted to give voters the opportunity to change the format of elections. They have also said political affiliations are irrelevant to the work of the county’s election officials, so voters should choose candidates based on their experience, qualifications and ability to do the job.

The commissioners decided to place a question about nonpartisan elections on the November ballot after Gov. Steve Bullock signed a law this spring that simplified the process for changing the format of county elections. Seifert testified for the bill before the Legislature in March.

Unlike Gallatin County, Lewis and Clark County voters decided on Tuesday to change its county elections from partisan to nonpartisan. Final election night results from that county showed 55.9% of voters approving the change and 44.1% of voters denying it.

By 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Gallatin County had counted 25,375 ballots and had at least 1,500 left to count, said Clerk and Recorder Eric Semerad. He said turnout was “well over 40%.” Final results were expected by midnight.

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