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Kate Bratches, center, an election judge, volunteered to help pass out voter registration forms when she heard the polling station at the Missoula County Fairgrounds needed the extra help during the 2018 general election. As lines grew throughout the day she helped new voters fill out their registration forms before going in to vote.

Missoula County is entering into a $1.87 million buy-sell agreement for a Russell Street office building that will house the elections center, offer training space that can be rented out, and provide room for emergency operations.

The proposed purchase from the Western Montana Mental Health Center includes a 7,711-square-foot building and 64,400 square feet of land at 140 N. Russell. If purchased, the county also plans to construct a 4,200-square-foot, one-story addition to the current two-story facility, which also has a daylight basement. Previous estimates for the addition were between $400,000 and $450,000.

“I know this is a need that we have and the location is ideal,” Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said.

Matt Jennings, a deputy county attorney, noted that the county does have several “off ramps” built into the agreement. So, if something comes up as the county performs its due diligence, the buy-sell agreement can be scrapped.

“They will make the final decision on the purchase later,” Jennings said.

The previous $1.95 million appraised value for the purchase dropped by $73,605 after the amount of land being bought was reduced by 3,985 square feet. The county also has the right of first refusal for a warehouse on the property, which is located at the corner of Russell and Wyoming streets.

Andrew Czorny, the county’s chief financial officer, said the debt service for a loan for the purchase, with about a 4.2 percent interest rate, would be $139,603 annually. That equates to about $1.69 per year increase in taxes for a $200,000 home, or $2.54 for a $300,000 home.

Since the purchase is less than $2 million, under state statute voter approval isn’t required for the county to issue Limited Time General Obligation Bonds.

Currently, the elections office uses space at the courthouse and fairgrounds. Vickie Zeier, the county’s chief administrator officer and former elections administrator, said that during the 2008 election, they had people filing for late registration lined out to the courthouse stairways.

“It was crazy and we knew then that we had to move, so we went to the fairgrounds,” she said. “Currently they’re using four different buildings to do this now at the fairgrounds.”

Currently, elections officials use about five desks in the Missoula County treasurer’s office in the courthouse, according to Dayna Causby, the current elections administrator. The staff can swell to 50 to 60 intermittent election aides during the days and weeks surrounding a primary or general election, plus another 150 to 175 people on election days.

Her office currently pays $26,500 annually to lease space, and estimates another $13,500 is spent on time moving back and forth.

The regular moves are disruptive to staff, and at times confusing to the public, and also create logistical problems, Causby said during an interview with the Missoulian in February. She was testifying before the Montana Legislature in Helena Wednesday and unavailable for comment.

But Causby had noted that strict guidelines cover the handling of ballots, and 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. Causeby said they can’t store those at the courthouse because they have so many documents. They also need to store the election equipment.

In a memo to the commission, Zeier wrote that the addition would be used for same-day voter registration, but also provide needed training space for the sheriff’s office. It also could be used in place of the current Emergency Operations Center, which Zeier said is “inadequately sized for long-duration, large multi-agency events.

She noted that during the 2018 flooding, emergency agency representatives and key stakeholders were squeezed into offices and even hallways during briefings and planning meetings.

Since the property has 123 parking spaces, it should not only be able to accommodate voters on Election Day, but its location on bike paths and bus routes also would allow county employees who work downtown to park there and commute. The public also can easily access the location.

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