Missoula County is considering buying a Russell Street office building for about $1.9 million to house its election offices, with plans for an addition that could add another $400,000 to $450,000 to the final cost.

On Thursday, county staff met with representatives from Western Montana Mental Health Center to look at purchasing one of its buildings at 140 N. Russell St., near the Wyoming Street intersection.

The 7,700-square-foot, two-story facility with a daylight basement would provide office space for five full-time employees and a staff that can grow to 50 to 60 intermittent election aides during the days and weeks surrounding a primary or general election, and another 150 to 175 people on those election days.

A possible 3,000- to 4,000-square-foot one-story addition also is under consideration on the property. That space could be used for the Office of Emergency Management, the sheriff’s department, and some staff training.

“It’s intended to be open space that could be used for a variety of functions,” said Andrew Czorny, the county’s chief financial officer who’s working on the purchase.

The building’s central location, along two bus routes and a bike path, as well as at least 200 parking spots, makes it a good fit for the elections office, according to Czorny. He noted that the county had recently backed out of a buy/sell agreement on South Higgins at the old UFS store after realizing it wouldn’t provide adequate parking for voters on election days, when they need at least 200 spaces.

“We’ve been searching for property for quite some time that’s centrally located and has adequate parking,” Czorny said. “For the last two years I’ve been looking in earnest.”

Currently, Dayna Causby, the elections administrator, said she “owns” space for five desks in the county treasurer’s office in the courthouse, and anytime they need a part-time person they have to set up a temporary desk.

Since 2010, the elections staff has moved to the fairgrounds anywhere from a month or two before an election and has stayed there for a few days to a few weeks afterward. Those regular moves from the downtown Missoula treasurer’s office to the fairgrounds are disruptive to the staff and at times confusing to the public, and also create logistical problems in increasingly cramped quarters, according to Causby.

“For more than 50 percent of the year we have an active election going on,” Causby said, noting that last year was particularly disruptive with the construction work at the fairgrounds, and that next year they’re losing access to one of the many buildings they’ve been using, which totaled about 11,000 square feet.

While most people only think about the voting process twice a year, during primary and general elections, there’s also school, city and special elections. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, Missoula County held 11 elections.

In the days and weeks surrounding elections, staff prepare and receive ballots. They register voters, and update information such as new addresses and signatures. As same-day registration increases in popularity, the technology and staffing needed to meet the demand increases each year.

“This requires using more space at the fairgrounds for longer periods of time, which is difficult as the fairgrounds renovation project continues (as evidenced in November) and requires movement of technology, equipment, supplies and staff several times per year,” Vickie Zeier, the county’s chief administrative officer and former elections official, wrote in an email to the Missoulian.

“The recording office in the county courthouse also converted a function traditionally handled by a contract to a new county employee, so the space the elections office has in the annex continues to dwindle," Zeier wrote.

Strict guidelines cover the handling of ballots, as well as the need to retain the physical documents. Federal ballots are kept for two years, local ballots for one year, and voter information is maintained forever.

“Right now, we have about 30 pallets that are about 5 feet tall and 4 feet square,” Causby said. “We want that to be stored in the new building; right now, with the current building, it wouldn’t hold all that we have. It’s a lot of documents.”

And every two years, Causby’s office holds training for about 600 election judges. That can involve two three-hour classes for three days a week from December through mid-March.

“People think the election office is something that just happens during an election, but we have training every two years and two or three elections each year,” Causby added.

For about a decade, the county quietly has been looking for a permanent home for the elections office to offer a more centralized location, more parking and more room for the public, Zeier said.

“The county used to offer all services leading up to and on Election Day on the second floor of the annex at the county courthouse until 2010,” Zeier said. “Same-day voter registration, an important and popular option for the public, led to people cramming into the annex stairwell waiting for hours for service.”

The purchase of the building wasn’t included in the fiscal year budget. Czorny said that if the county commissioners decide to move forward with the purchase, they’ll probably issue “LTGO” or Limited Time General Obligation Bonds to pay for the building. Those bonds can’t exceed $2 million, and would add an estimated $2.36 annually to the tax bill for a $250,000 home. Those LTGO bonds don’t need to be approved by voters.

Causby estimates they will spend about $40,000 to lease the fairgrounds property for the 2020 election year.

Czorny and Zeier expect the matter to come before the commission either at a meeting during the week of Feb. 18 or March 11.

Last week, Czorny told county commissioners this is an opportunistic purchase in he learned the building was for sale through a casual conversation, and they’re working directly with the owners rather than going through a real estate agent. Not only does that save money, it also allows them to move quickly in a tight real estate market, Czorny said.

The three commissioners generally liked the idea, although they wanted more specifics on the building and the costs.

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