HELENA – Lewis and Clark County leaders have agreed to move forward with an offer to buy four properties adjacent to the county courthouse and the Law Enforcement Center in Helena.
County commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to offer about $525,000 for the properties at 200, 206, 214 and 218 Broadway. All together, the properties make up just under a half-acre. They include five buildings: the former Capital Baptist Fellowship church, several residences and the historic former U.S. Assay Office, built in the 1870s.
County leaders said for years they have been interested in buying any properties available around the courthouse. They said the building has become overcrowded, and they need additional space so they can expand operations there.
“This is a big picture, and it’s something for a long period of time, but it’s something that we must consider,” said Commissioner Jim McCormick.
The Broadway properties are currently held in trust by the Christofferson family. County staff said the family approached them about selling the land last summer. The owners and the county split the cost of an appraisal, which valued the properties at $497,000. The appraiser reduced the value because of their location next to the county detention center.
The county is required by law to pay no more than the appraised value when purchasing a property. However, leaders expect to pay a total of $525,000 including closing costs and the cost of improvements the owners have made.
Mike McCabe, whose wife is one of the trustees of the property, said he wasn’t satisfied with the result of the appraisal, calling the assessed value “bargain-basement.” However, he said the family wants to see the land in the hands of someone that can make use of it while protecting its history.
County chief administrative officer Roger Baltz said he expects to present a final offer to the family in the coming weeks. If the owners accept the offer, he said it will still likely be several years before any large changes are made, since the county’s top priority will be converting the Law Enforcement Center into an expanded jail.
The $525,000 to buy the Broadway properties was set aside from the county’s capital reserve budget. County finance director Nancy Everson noted that would decrease the reserves available to cover any cost overruns on the jail renovation. She said it is likely the cost will be higher than the $6.5 million voters approved in a 2016 bond, since two years will have passed before construction begins. However, Everson said more than $1 million will still be available in the reserves.
Commissioner Susan Good Geise said she had some reservations about the purchase, because of the uncertainty over jail costs. In the end, though, she said the county couldn’t afford to pass up this opportunity.
“We need to plan for the future, we need to act for the future, but we only have today’s dollars to do that,” she said.
Baltz said the county is not making definitive plans for the Broadway properties, since there has been no official agreement yet. He said some possible uses could include expanded parking or storage and archival space for the courthouse. Commissioners say some official documents from Montana’s territorial era currently have to be stored in the building’s attic, where they are more likely to decay.
County staff said additional space in the courthouse could also be necessary if Lewis and Clark County receives an additional district court judge or justice of the peace to deal with growing court workloads.