Stillwater windows

Workers re-install one of more than 700 windows on March 1 in the former James F. Battin Federal Courthouse, now called the Stillwater Building.

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

On Jan. 1, 2019, two additional District Court judges are scheduled to go to work in Yellowstone County. Our county, the busiest judicial district in Montana, could use at least six more judges right now, but two is what the Legislature approved. Two can make a significant difference in speeding up the justice system.

District judges and their office staff are state employees. But counties are responsible for providing the court space. When Yellowstone County added its sixth district judge nearly a decade ago, the County Courthouse was full already. There wasn’t space for a sixth courtroom, so there are only five courtrooms and one smaller hearing room for the six judges to share. That sharing gets more complicated as more cases are filed and each judge has a growing caseload.

The Yellowstone County Courthouse is so full that the Sheriff’s Office was relocated to the round building a couple of blocks east many years ago. Last week, the sheriff moved to a different building on Second Avenue North. The County Extension Office has moved across the street to the Old Chamber of Commerce building.

Where will two more judges work?

Count officials are exploring reasonable options. Because of the time needed to complete moving and remodeling, a decision must be made within 60 to 90 days, according to County Finance Director Kevan Bryan.

Last week, County Commissioners toured the Stillwater Building across Third Avenue North from the County Courthouse. That is the old federal courthouse, which now is privately owned. EEC, the Billings firm managing Stillwater renovations, has abated the asbestos contamination that was a major factor in the federal government abandoning the building.

Rather than moving six judges, courtrooms, staff, the District Court clerk and County Attorney’s offices out of the courthouse, officials are looking to relocate county administration. Moving county commissioners, the finance department, clerk and recorder and auditor offices would open up the fourth floor for necessary court expansion.

The offices now on the fourth floor would fit into the third floor of the Stillwater Building, with room to spare for storage and future office needs.

The commmission has directed staff to explore the possibility of purchasing the third floor. That floor is mostly a shell, so the interior can be built to accommodate the county’s office needs.

The round building that the Sheriff’s Department vacated is another possibility. The county already owns the property and the administrative offices could be squeezed into it. The downside is that the building (originally a savings bank) needs a new HVAC system, and the round design is inefficient. It would provide no space for future office expansion.

There would need to be a professional appraisal of the Stillwater Building’s third floor before the county can even consider a purchase. By law, the county cannot pay more than the appraised value. If it's affordable, the Stillwater Building would be the county’s best long-term option.

For years, county officials have been expecting some expense for court expansion. They know that funds are limited, so it is important to get the best value for the taxpayers’ money: Adequate space that allows government services to operate without wasting time or energy.