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BOCC looks at re-introducing plans for Justice Center

(Originally published December 7, 2023)

Like much of the infrastructure of Custer County, the brick-clad County Courthouse is on the 100-year replacement plan, and the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) is using a state grant to create a new courthouse plan. This is the second time that the BOCC has looked to try to build what they call a new “Justice Center” that would house a court, rooms for judges and lawyers, plus house law enforcement offices, including a space for the District Attorney. In 2021, voters rejected a $31.5 million plan to build a court plus a new jail, all located in a single building. With the Custer County jail closed and prisoners being held in Fremont County, the BOCC wants to pursue a smaller version of the plan that voters rejected.

During a meeting on November 11, the Commissioners heard an update from Reilly Johnson Architecture on the firm’s new floor plans. They asked questions about how the BOCC wanted the exterior to work. The new floor plans included a single court, a temporary holding area for suspects in custody waiting for their trial time, rooms for the sheriff’s office, and a jury deliberation room with separate bathrooms. The main reason for a new building boils down to safety.

As Commissioner Bill Canda pointed out, the current court consists of a single courtroom, a small office for the clerks, and another office for the judge. A small hallway less than ten feet wide is the only place for defendants or plaintiffs to wait, often rubbing shoulders in the tight space with each other. Security consists of a single metal detector that is jammed into the end of the hallway.

The state has passed laws that increase safety in the courts, but it recognized that small rural counties lacked the funds to upgrade existing courts or the borrowing power to build a new building. The Underfunded Courts grants are aimed at helping places like Custer County create plans to increase safety in courts. Yet these grants are not a blank check, and the project funding burden still falls on the county taxpayers.

These courthouses are expensive, and the increase in inflation seen across the country since 2020 has more than doubled the cost of large building projects. Even the stripped-down version of the Justice Center that was presented was in a range of $10 to $12 million dollars. For comparison, the entire yearly Custer County budget without the school included is around $10 million dollars per year. Custer County has no capital reserves large enough for a down payment, so the full cost of the building will have to be borrowed, with the hope that the state will provide a few million dollars to help.

Complicating matters is the recent increase in interest rates on borrowed funds, a topic that the BOCC did not address during the presentation. Since voters rejected the last Justice Center in 2021, interest rates on 30-year municipal bonds have more than doubled, increasing from 1.54% to 3.75%. The total cost of a $10 million court building would cost a total of $16.5 million, roughly half a million dollars a year.

During the last Justice Center question, the BOCC decided to use a sales tax increase to pay for the building, which would have made sales taxes in Custer County tied for the highest in the state with Aspen, Colorado. The BOCC did not address during this primary meeting if they would use a sales tax, or property tax, increase to fund the proposed court building.

The BOCC and the Justice Center Committee will be holding more meetings with the design firm this month.

– Jordan Hedberg

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