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Finally a bid: Construction will begin on third Missoula Municipal Court courtroom

Missoula now has three elected Municipal Court judges, which requires a third Municipal Court courtroom. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

While it wasn’t easy, the City of Missoula finally received a bid to remodel Municipal Court at City Hall to accommodate one of the city’s new Municipal Court judges.

In the meantime, the judge will use City Council chambers as a makeshift courtroom. As a result, all are eager to get the construction project moving forward.

“I know the judges will be glad to get this going,” said council member Gwen Jones. “It also impacts us on the council to have our chambers back as council chambers and not as a courtroom.”

After receiving no bids late last year, the city finally netted a single bid for the project in its second try. That came from D. Lower Construction at a cost of roughly $210,000.

Last December, the City Council also approved a $94,000 contract with AVI Systems to install new technology in council chambers, allowing it to serve as a temporary courtroom while construction of a third courtroom was pending in City Hall.

A third courtroom became necessary after the 2021 Legislature amended state laws requiring the election – not the appointment – of municipal court judges. Missoula had one judge and two appointed part-time judges prior to the Legislature. It now has three elected Municipal Court judges, and it needs space as a result.

“I’m grateful we got one bid and we can move forward with this,” said Jones. “We’re trying to have the courtroom ready for the new judges, but we literally couldn’t get any bids because of the strange economic times we’re living in with the pandemic.”

The city has discussed returning to a hybrid meeting model – a blend of virtual and in-person meetings for committees and City Council’s weekly meeting. But that can’t happen until the city gets clearance from the health department – and gets City Council chambers back.

The shuffling of courtrooms also demonstrates the challenges facing both the city and county in finding the space needed to meet the basic functions of government as Missoula grows.

The two governments are looking to acquire the vacant downtown federal building and converting the facility into a central hub of government services. Doing so would meet their spatial needs and allow them to sell their old properties for redevelopment.

For now, however, City CAO Dale Bickell said City Hall will have to accommodate current needs. Funding for the courtroom construction will come from cash reserves in the General Fund.

“We only had one bid on this, but it came in substantially less than our original estimate,” Bickell said. “We reserved $500,000 for this, so we have a substantial savings here.”