Sunday, September 27, 2020

County expansion plan makes sense

| June 28, 2020 1:00 AM

The Flathead County commissioners face a big decision in the next couple of weeks on a multimillion-dollar proposal to provide more space for the county’s growing workforce.

On the table is the potential purchase of the CenturyLink building just north of the intersection of U.S. 2 and 93 in Kalispell, and plans to reconfigure space at other county buildings. The plan would move several county departments currently strained for space to the 20,000-square-foot former telecom building, including the Motor Vehicles, Treasurer, Accounting, Elections, Superintendent of Schools and Family Court Services. That would free up much-needed space at the Justice Center for an additional District Court courtroom. New Justice Court courtrooms, additional office space and new temporary holding cells would be constructed in the Courthouse West building.

The entire plan, including the purchase of the CenturyLink building, comes to just under $7 million.

Commissioner Phil Mitchell, to his credit, has taken the lead in completing his own study on space needs, and has found the addition of the CenturyLink building to be the most cost-effective way of addressing the county’s growing pains.

Since there’s precious little room left for expansion at the county campus that encompasses the historic courthouse, Justice Center and myriad other county buildings, this expansion plan makes sense, and gives the county taxpayer the most bang for his buck. Yes, $7 million is a lot of money, but this proposal is not extravagant by any means. Keep in mind the cost of the South Campus Building that houses the Agency on Aging, Planning Office and Election Department cost $7 million when it was built about five years ago.

New buildings are sometimes a necessity, and both the South Campus Building and its predecessor, the Earl Bennett Building — which was expanded with a third floor just a few years ago — were much-needed additions to the county’s buildings.

But time and time again Flathead County has found innovative ways to use existing space. Remember Courthouse East in the old Kalispell hospital building on the city’s east side? That facility met county space needs for quite some time. More recently the county renovated the historic jail building south of the courthouse for the County Attorney offices, and transformed the former “Blue Building” into what’s now Courthouse West. A decade ago the county wisely spent $1.8 million to upgrade the historic 1903 courthouse.

The commissioners have our support for this latest proposed expansion project. It’s time to green-light the proposal and give our county employees the space they need to do their jobs.