HAMILTON, Mont. - The city of Hamilton is exploring plans to construct a new Justice Center.
City council approved the purchase of two large commercial lots to build it. The cost of the land is about $230,000 -- money the city has been putting aside for several years.
There are no immediate plans to build what's estimated to be about a $2 million project.
Taxpayers are already looking at a 40-percent property tax increase over last year, and the Justice Center idea has supporters and critics.
On Thursday morning, Hamilton Police Chief Ryan Oster gave NBC Montana a tour of offices in city hall. First, he opened the door to show us the evidence room.
"Our evidence room is full and overflowing most of the time," said Oster.
He said if marijuana is seized, its aroma wafts through city hall, because the ventilation system isn't very good.
He showed the records room, which was stuffed with paperwork.
In a nearby storage unit, the Chief unveiled lost or stolen bicycles, and across town, he showed us where they park cars that have been seized in crimes.
Oster brought us into the cramped men's locker room, and an even smaller women's locker room.
"We have maximized every inch we've been given," said Oster.
A new Justice Center would put police, city court and the city attorney's office under one roof, and create a great deal more space.
"We need to secure these offices, and the courts a little better than we're able to do in this (present) building," said City Planner Dennis Stranger.
Stranger said a justice center would ease existing cramped conditions, and accommodate future growth and expansion.
The City Hall Annex, which is in another building, would be sold.
The proposed Justice Center site is a little more than an acre in size on the east side of Hamilton, in a relatively undeveloped area of town. Stranger said it would offer good access for police.
NBC Montana also talked with longtime Hamilton resident Bob Bedey. Bedey examined city documents going over the cost, and he doesn't like the numbers.
"It just doesn't sound like we're getting a good bang for our buck," said Bedey. "It sounds like we're going to spend a lot of money that maybe we really don't have to."
Bedey thinks city hall could be renovated to add more space for a few hundred thousand dollars.
Bedey showed us the community room, where city council meets. He marked off more than 100 feet, by about 60 feet in space there.
"It's very spacious," he said, "and has a lot of potential."
Bedey said he thinks using the existing space would put taxpayer money to better use.
"It would be a better way of spending our tax dollars," he said.
City court and its hallways are cramped. Workers tell us it's impossible to talk to people who come to court in privacy.
"We try to take them off to the side in the lobby," said city court clerk Becky Barnes, "hand them their paperwork, and explain the process to them out in the public."
She said on court days, especially, parking is a problem.
Stranger said the existing building isn't very handicapped accessible. He said making it more handicapped friendly is expensive. But he said the city may undertake handicapped improvements in city hall.
Bedey said there are a lot of people in Hamilton on fixed incomes. He said they can't afford a justice center.
City hall is also called the Bedford Building, and used to be the old Elk's Lodge.
Bedey is an Elk, and spent a lot of time in the building.
"It was built in 1949," he said, "and it's in good shape."
"The building is paid for," he said, "and for taxpayers watching their dollars that's a plus."
He said with increasing taxes on many fronts, taxpayers will be more watchful than ever of their money.
Stranger said there will be a number of work sessions scheduled over the next several months to talk about capital improvements.
This is just the beginning of what will likely be table talk in Hamilton for some time.