HELENA – City and county leaders have officially taken possession of the downtown Helena building that will serve as the new home of the Helena Police Department and Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office. By the end of the year, they hope to have both agencies moved into the building at 420 Fuller Avenue.
“This has been a long process,” said county commissioner Jim McCormick. “We are in the final stages of getting this done.”
Last month, the city and county finalized an agreement to pay $1.29 million for the building, which held offices for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana until the insurance company moved into its new headquarters in 2016. They are leasing it at first, while the property is legally split into two parts, and will purchase it after that.
Leaders are now calling the Fuller Avenue building the Law and Justice Center. They are currently working on a plan for how to organize it, so they can determine what renovations need to be done before law enforcement can move in.
“We want to make sure that the building meets the needs of the occupants: secured access, adequate bifurcation of different areas of the offices for law enforcement needs,” said Roger Baltz, the county’s chief administrative officer.
HPD and LCSO have to move out of their current offices, in the Law Enforcement Center on Breckenridge Street, before crews can begin converting that entire building into jail space. Lewis and Clark County voters approved a bond and annual levy to pay for an expanded detention center.
“This is not a one, two, three or four step process – there are many in getting all of this done,” McCormick said.
The new Law and Justice Center provides about 40,000 square feet of space – more than double what the police department and sheriff’s office currently have available.
“The facility here gives us room to move, so people aren’t stacked on one another, and is still central to the city of Helena, which works well for law enforcement,” said McCormick.
Because of the additional space, leaders are looking to move other services into the building as well. That includes the county coroner’s office, which will be consolidated with the sheriff’s office starting Jan. 1, and the new restorative justice department, which includes pretrial and other diversion programs funded through the jail operations levy. In the future, Baltz said they might even move Helena Municipal Court there, from the county courthouse.
“We’re trying to make wise, thoughtful choices about what offices are a good match for this location, for these kinds of services,” he said.
McCormick said this building offers far more for the city and county’s money than what they could have gotten by building a new facility.
“Call it ‘recycle, reuse,’” he said. “We have a very good facility given its age. It’s been well-maintained; the prior owners took very good care of this property.”
Leaders hope to have a final floor plan for the Law and Justice Center by next month. A joint city-county building board will then have to approve the plan before renovation can begin.
“We would like to have this work done by the middle of the fall,” Baltz said. “It could possibly be late fall before we’re finished, getting into late October, November, but our target is to do it sooner than that.”
Baltz said they are discussing how to relocate the two law enforcement agencies while maintaining their operations. He said they will most likely have to move in phases.