County should study all options for space needs

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Flathead County officials have wrestled with the challenges of an expanding county workforce for most of the past decade, and the county once again is faced with growing pains that need a remedy.

This time around it’s the District Court, Justice Court, Elections and Treasurer’s departments that have the biggest need for more space. The county commissioners plan to purchase the vacant, 20,000-square-foot CenturyLink building near downtown Kalispell, providing the building meets all county specifications. A final vote on a buy-sell agreement is expected within a couple of months.

The CenturyLink facility seems to be a viable alternative for more space, but we hope the commissioners will look at other options as well. For example, the South Campus Building that opened on the county campus just four years ago was built with the potential for construction of a third floor as space is needed. Of course money hasn’t been discussed publicly yet, and we don’t know what the difference in cost might be for an expanded South Campus Building versus the CenturyLink building.

If the cost of a third floor on the South Campus Building is cost-effective, it would make sense to have expanded court facilities closer to the Justice Center courtrooms.

The county has invested millions of dollars in new and renovated facilities in recent years, starting with a $2.6 million restoration of the main courthouse in 2011. That remodel did away with those unsightly annex buildings and brought the commissioners’ chambers into the courthouse. We’ve always said that project was money well spent to preserve the historic building.

A third story was added to the Earl Bennett Building four years ago at a cost of roughly $500,000 to accommodate a burgeoning City-County Health Department. Around the same time the county built the South Campus Building for $7 million and the same year pumped $4 million to transform the old jail building into space for the County Attorney’s Office.

Along the way, the county purchased the white two-story commercial building on South Main to house MSU Extension and 4-H offices.

In response to a need for more jail beds, the county spent $1.3 million three years ago to add a 36-bed dormitory to the county jail by renovating space on the second floor of the Justice Center. Therein lies some of the space crunch for Justice Court. And now jail officials and the sheriff say they’re still struggling with jail space needs. In addition, the Sheriff’s Office also is stretched for space.

All things considered, it’s been a whirlwind of growth for the county as the Flathead continues to boast a robust local economy. The commissioners, to their credit, have approached facility growth carefully, using myriad funding sources to minimize the burden to local taxpayers.

We expect nothing less this time around.

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