BILLINGS — Billings Municipal Court Bailiff Mary Terry said it will be a welcome change to eventually move from her cramped office at City Hall that she shares with two other bailiffs to something bigger.
"It will be nice to have a bigger room where we’re not over each other. Especially with COVID going on, because now we’re trying to make sure that we’re six feet apart from each other. So that is another issue," Terry said on Wednesday.
For years, the city has been wrestling with a need for more space for city offices. Two years ago, the old vault at City Hall was converted to a windowless office for a municipal court prosecutor.
"We’re just out of room. No place to put additional staff or people,” said Kevin Iffland, Billings assistant city administrator.
The city signed final paperwork to purchase the Stillwater Building at a cost of $13.5 million on Friday, hopefully bringing an end to the city's need for additional space.
"What this building does allow for is significant growth in the city. This building has the square footage to accommodate all the city's needs going out 30, 40, 50 plus years," Iffland said.
Located at 316 N 26th St., the five-floor, 213,165-square-foot former federal courthouse is mostly an empty shell for the city to build out to its needs. The Yellowstone County government currently leases the third floor, which is the only one built out. The county's lease expires in May 2025.
Iffland said the plan is to build first the space for a law and justice center to house municipal court, city attorneys and prosecutors, and the police department.
“We want to add a second municipal court judge. So this building will allow us to do that and give them a place for that to happen. Right now, we could not add a second municipal court judge because we don’t have room for another courtroom. There’s just no space available we could put that," Iffland said.
The building was paid for from the city's reserve budget and about $6 million in federal COVID relief money from the American Rescue Plan act and CARES Act, Iffland said. With additional construction to flesh out the space, the total is estimated to be $29.5 million before it's all complete.
The city finished out 2020 with an excess of $20 million in reserves, thanks to the federal COVID bills. The city paid for public safety services out of the general fund, thus freeing the federal money for other public safety uses.
The plan is to eventually move all city offices to the Stillwater Building. They're currently spread throughout three downtown locations. A space at Billings Depot currently hosts public works, administration and engineering. Planning, building and community development are currently at the Miller Building.
Iffland said construction should start next spring on the law and justice center, with a tentative completion date in 2025. Iffland said as spaces get done in the Stillwater Building, departments could start to move over in a phased approach.
“Our goal is to make it as efficient and as effective for each of those departments, because I think the citizens demand that we are doing everything we can to be efficient and effective with their taxpayer dollars," Iffland said.
As for the old city hall, the plan is to sell it, possibly having new people move in as city departments move out, Iffland said.
On Nov. 2, the city will ask voters whether to approve a $7.1 million public safety mill levy. If approved, Iffland said it would add 14 new police officers, 14 police administrative staff, and a second municipal court judge, among other public safety investments.
Now with the Stillwater Building, the city will have plenty of space to put them.