When Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito has his morning briefing with staff and law enforcement officers, everyone packs into his office or a small conference room on the courthouse’s seventh floor.
When there’s a trial, prosecution witnesses often stand around “the pit,” a central open area where victim/witness coordinators are located, waiting to be called into the courtroom.
The noise in the pit can get so loud that the coordinators have trouble hearing when they make phone calls, often to convey sensitive information to victims or witnesses.
“They can hardly hear with the sound going on,” Twito said.
The “footprint” of the county attorney’s offices has not changed in about 20 years, Twito said, but his department has grown to include more attorneys and staff and a heavier caseload.
Twito said he’s “desperate” for conference rooms for families, victims and meetings.
When deputy attorneys need a conference room, they can either use the small meeting room or bump their boss from his personal office, which has a medium-sized round table. Twito picks up his laptop and clears out.
For times when a big conference room is essential — when there are multiple trials or for large staff meetings — Twito reserves Room 105 on the first floor. He uses the first-floor room four or five times a month, he said.
To relieve crowding in the county attorney’s offices and to address space needs for several other county offices, the county commissioners are considering a proposal that calls for some courthouse remodeling as well as construction of a new building at MetraPark. The plan is estimated to cost $1.4 million.
Commission Chairman Jim Reno dubbed the project “space wars,” but all of the offices that would be affected are on board.
The county, he said, is trying to address the county attorney’s “ever-growing needs. We need to give him adequate space.”
The project resembles a game of dominoes, starting with the county’s Extension Service.
The Extension Service would leave its first-floor offices and move to MetraPark.
The county attorney’s civil division would vacate its second floor office and move into the former Extension offices on the first floor.
The clerk of court’s office, which shares the seventh floor with the county attorney, would take over the second floor.
And finally, the county attorney’s criminal division would spread out over the seventh floor. Twito also would move up his youth and elder and neglect divisions from the second floor to the seventh floor and place staff on the same floor as the supervisors.
There are 32 county attorney employees on the seventh floor and another 15 employees on the second floor.
“I don’t like to spend money,” Twito said of the project costs. But if he can get a bigger conference room and consolidate his youth and elder and neglect staffs, he said it “just makes sense.”
The county has been working with Schutz Foss Architects of Billings, which has prepared drawings for remodeling to better accommodate the needs.
The county also is getting a market value assessment of a two-story brick office building it owns at 214 N. 24th St., a few blocks east of the courthouse.
The initial idea, Reno said, was to move the Extension Service to the brick building and to spend about $300,000 remodeling the space. The county bought the building when it acquired property for county parking as part of a complicated land deal to make way for the new James F. Battin Federal Courthouse. Once used as a law office, the brick building is vacant.
But the more officials talked about the plan, Reno said, they decided a better option would be to sell the brick building and use the proceeds to build Extension Services a new building at the MetraPark fairgrounds. A fairgrounds location would provide easier access for Extension Service clients with livestock trailers and would be a good fit with the fair and other activities, he said.
One option may be to demolish one of MetraPark’s old fair buildings, which has a leaky roof and is used for storage, Reno said.
“Extension likes it. It puts them on the fairgrounds with plenty of parking,” he said.
Roni Baker, Extension’s 4-H and Youth Development agent, said parking and access for the agency’s agricultural clientele would be better at MetraPark.
“We’re fine where we are, but they need the court space. We’re a department that doesn’t need to be in the courthouse. We understand that totally,” Baker said.
There are several options for what would be the best MetraPark location for the Extension Service, which has a total staff of seven, Baker said. “It’s kind of a good problem to have. I’m excited to know we can keep talking and work that through,” she said.
“We need to move first. Then they can start construction on the first floor,” Baker said.
The Extension Service first-floor space is usable “pretty much as is short of paint” for his civil division, Twito said. The civil division “is the easiest to separate out” from his office’s other functions, he said.
Clerk of Court Kristie Boelter also supports moving to the second floor — “as long as when they build it we maintain a visual sight of the counter for all deputies to assist the public at any time,” she said.
As court records go toward electronic filing, Boelter said, she doesn’t anticipate her office will need to grow and that it won’t need as much storage for paper files.
Being on the second floor, which has access to the skybridge across North 27th Street to the city’s parking garage, would allow her office to offer extended hours for services like marriage licenses, Boelter said.
“We’re happy to accommodate and we’re looking forward to the move. We’ll make it work. The only downfall is our beautiful view of the mountains,” she said. “We have the most beautiful view of the mountains up here at sunset. But it’s not a big enough deal not to move to the second floor,” she added.
Finance Director Scott Turner said the project would be paid for by the general fund’s capital improvement fund, which has about $2.4 million. The fund does not yet include a one-time disbursement of protested taxes from the state’s settlement with CHS, which owns the Laurel oil refinery, he said. When the transfer is made, the capital projects fund will have more than $3 million, he said.
The $1.4 million estimated project cost includes $300,000 to remodel the brick building, Turner said. However, selling the brick building could raise an estimated $450,000 for the county, he said. If selling the building ends up being a wash with the $300,000 in renovation costs, the county would have about $1.1 million for courthouse remodeling, he said.
Turner did not anticipate the county borrowing money or raising taxes for the project. The county, he said, likely will have the paperwork for the project done by the end of the current fiscal year and be ready for construction in the next year.