Thanks, but no thanks.
Yellowstone County commissioners on Tuesday declined the federal General Service Administration’s offer to donate the asbestos-laden James F. Battin Federal Courthouse.
In a split decision, the commission approved a letter to GSA saying it had no interest in the five-story, 221,367-square-foot building across the street from the county courthouse in downtown Billings.
GSA recently declared the courthouse to be surplus property and gave first dibs, as required under its disposal process, to homeless assistance agencies and to local and state government. If none of those agencies wants it, GSA will put the courthouse up for sale in an online auction.
A history of asbestos problems in the Battin building led the GSA to build new offices for the federal courts and other agencies.
The agency’s new $59 million federal courthouse is almost finished. And construction recently began on a new $30 million federal office building for employees now working in the Battin building.
Commissioner Bill Kennedy wanted time to explore the options and to work with the city. “I think there are some possibilities,” he said.
Billings Mayor Tom Hanel also asked the commission to hold off on the brush-off.
City Council members are interested in exploring the possibilities for the building and are expected to vote next week on whether to send the GSA a letter of intent expressing “possible interest, but not a commitment,” Hanel said.
Some possible uses include a city-county law enforcement center, a justice center to house local and state courts and a possible location for the emergency operations center, Hanel said.
Becky Bird, District Court administrator and a council member, said the six district judges supported the idea of exploring use of the Battin building for the courts.
But Commission Chairman John Ostlund and Commissioner Jim Reno didn’t need more time.
For Ostlund, the decision was easy. With the county facing large tax protests, the last thing the county should do is take on the building when it has no need for it, no plan and no budget, he said.
Besides the unknown expense of asbestos removal for any new owner, there would be remodeling costs, substantial maintenance and operating expenses, estimated at $1.5 million a year, and parking would still be inadequate, Ostlund said. And, he added, the boxy white building is “not really aesthetically pleasing.”
Reno agreed, saying that if the county needs to expand, it could build to the east of the county courthouse on land it owns, he said.
Reno also chided the GSA for disposing of the building “as is,” deeming it unsuitable for federal workers but acceptable for local government and homeless assistance agencies.
“How callous,” he said.