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City and county officials will finalize Friday their joint purchase of a $1.95 million Fuller Avenue property currently being renovated to house the Helena Police Department and Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office.

The lead-up to Friday’s closing began when county voters approved in 2016 the sale of a $6.5 million general obligation bond to expand the Lewis and Clark County Detention Center, housed at the Law Enforcement Center on Breckenridge Street. Before renovation of the entire Law Enforcement Center into jail space begins, city and county law enforcement housed on the property must relocate to Fuller Avenue.

The city and county entered into a lease in May to purchase the Fuller Avenue property, to be called the Law and Justice Center, by the end of the year. The $12,500 monthly lease payments split by the city and county since May will count toward the property’s $1.95 million purchase price. In all, the property comprises about 65,000 square feet and 136 parking spaces at 404 and 406 Fuller Ave.

According to county administrative officer Roger Baltz, the property – previously home to Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana – should receive a certificate of occupancy on Jan. 18, after which law enforcement personnel can begin to relocate.

“This is a very important threshold event for us,” Baltz said. “It’s been many months of effort working together with the city, our partner in this whole thing, and all the stakeholders — Sheriff’s Office, Helena PD — coming together as a team to evaluate what the options were for us.”

The city and county originally leased only 406 Fuller Ave. at a purchase price of $1.29 million, but discussion of buying 404 Fuller Ave., better known as the Pillar Building, began when officials started looking into the legalities of separating 404 from 406. It was discovered that separating the two would require a three-hour firewall per Helena city code.

Installation would have cost, by Baltz’s estimate, “several hundred thousand dollars.”

The view from Breckenridge Street, and beyond

Chief of Police Troy McGee joined the Helena Police Department in 1975, when the department was housed at the present-day Helena Civic Center and the county jail at what is now The Myrna Loy. When the Law Enforcement Center opened 10 years later, McGee said, space already was precious.

“Even back then, right away, it was kind of apparent the jail was pretty tight,” McGee said.

Since then, the county’s general and inmate populations have only increased. The Lewis and Clark County Detention Center was built in the mid-1980s to hold a maximum of 58 inmates, a number that increased over time to the present capacity of 80.

The inmate population currently hovers around 100 on a daily basis, peaking for the month thus far at 107 on Dec. 6. As recently as Sept. 4, the county held 119 inmates at the detention center with 21 more at other detention facilities.

The detention center held 100 inmates Thursday morning, with 19 more inmates being held at other facilities. Mattresses are laid out on the floor for inmates where space is available, including the hallway outside an attorney meeting room and in the library.

The sale of $6.5 million in general obligation bonds to expand the facility was voted on by more than 34,000 county residents in the 2016 general election and passed by just 76 votes. A 15-year, $4 million annual levy to operate the remodeled detention center failed on the same ballot but passed the following November.

After the jail bond sold Nov. 28, county finance director Nancy Everson said debt service would raise county property taxes in fiscal 2020 by about $6.22 on properties with $100,000 in taxable value. That number could change depending on whether the county’s taxable value rises or falls between now and July.

On the operations levy, county taxpayers incurred a property tax increase of $12.70 on properties with $100,000 in taxable value in fiscal 2019. According to Everson, that amount covered diversion services and the hiring of 15 new detention officers.

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