This story is excerpted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday.

Last month, state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen announced a bit of agency shuffling at a privately owned office building on the corner of 11th and Montana avenues in Helena, just a few blocks north of the Capitol complex. As part of Arntzen’s ongoing effort to shrink her agency’s physical footprint, the Office of Public Instruction vacated the space roughly a year ago. But negotiating an early exit from its lease, which was renewed for 10 years in 2016, proved to be a challenge.

As of Nov. 15, that challenge has been resolved, and 1201 11th Ave. officially has a new tenant: the Montana State Library. Until now, the library had been leasing 27,300 square feet of state-owned space in Helena’s Joseph P. Mazurek Justice Building — under the same roof that houses the state attorney general’s office. According to State Librarian Jennie Stapp, that space was increasingly underutilized as the library moved its collections online and shifted to a “digital first” service model, and the 7,200 square feet vacated by OPI was more in line with the library’s physical demands.

That will leave a good chunk of the Mazurek building empty. A spokesperson for the Department of Administration told Montana Free Press via email that DOA is currently evaluating the physical needs of agencies across the Capitol complex and “considering potential options” for the library’s former digs. 

For her part, Arntzen declared the shuffle a win for Montana taxpayers. OPI still had 38 months left on its 11th Ave. lease at a monthly cost of $13,776, for a total of $523,488 had OPI remained the lessee. As part of the renegotiation, the agency also agreed to pay $200,000 to the state’s General Services Division, which manages state-owned facilities and leasing. That’s how Arntzen arrived at her final savings estimate of $323,488.

Of course the state will still end up covering the cost of rent at 1201 11th Ave. since the library’s lease is set at the same monthly rate OPI was paying. But according to Stapp, the library was paying $293,093 annually at the Mazurek building, meaning her agency will end up saving $127,853 a year. How much will the musical chairs end up saving taxpayers overall? We won’t know that until the music stops and someone plops down in the library’s old seat.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...