Inside Report for Nov. 20, 2012

By the second quarter of 2014, Livingston Parish should have a new courthouse.

The route to building it has been as much of a maze as the labyrinth of halls that multiplied in the current courthouse each time additions were built.

The 1941 courthouse, once called “ostentatious,” has been termed “a nightmare” for more than a decade because of security, maintenance and user-friendliness issues.

Floods from roof leaks and plumbing provided some of the more-dramatic problems. Lack of space produced daily difficulties not only for workers, but for jurors, witnesses and people with other business in the building.

Halls became crowded waiting rooms, mingling people from all sides of tense cases.

A dozen exterior doors made security an issue of concern for people who work there.

The need for a new courthouse has been obvious for years, but a funding source has not.

During that time, leaders of various agencies took leaps of faith.

With no source of funding visible 11 years ago, leaders of six agencies pinched their budgets for a total of $900,000 to purchase land for a new courthouse complex.

Still with no funding in sight, Parish President Dewey Ratcliff signed an architectural contract in 2003 for the courthouse design.

Gradually lack of space coupled with the other courthouse problems forced several agencies out of the building and into leased space.

Still, officials attempting to find state or federal money to build a new courthouse wandered down dead-end halls. Antipathy for higher taxes signaled the futility of trying to get a millage passed for construction.

In 2010 Clerk of Court Tom Sullivan came up with an idea.

Saying he couldn’t stand to see the current situation continue, Sullivan proposed raising his office’s fees by $100 for civil suits and $20 for other recordings in order to pay for the new building.

That meant not only dealing with the political side of such a decision, but also getting approval from Louisiana Supreme Court committees, legislative committees, the state House, the state Senate and the state Bond Commission.

After groping through that maze, Sullivan and other parish officials ran into another blind alley when the low bid for the building ran higher than the amount of money the parish could bond based on the fee increase.

After intense discussions among the parties that will use the courthouse, the heads of those agencies promised the Parish Council they would dig into their own budgets to pay the difference. The council approved the bid 7-0.

Architect Jay Labarre said the first step in rectifying the remaining cost differences is to find ways of cutting expenses for the 109,000-square-foot building without sacrificing quality.

The next step will be seeking state or federal money.

That, Labarre said, could come as grants to pay for such things as generators and security equipment.

In the end, the Sheriff’s Office, clerk of court, judges and district attorney will have to find funds for the difference that remains.

Haggling will continue, but the parish finally is on its way to replacing its 1941 labyrinth.

Livingston Parish should end up with a courthouse that will serve its needs, but isn’t extravagant, Labarre said.

“It will stand with any courthouse in the state,” he told the Parish Council.

Bob Anderson is chief of The Advocate’s Florida Parishes bureau. He can be reached at banderson@theadvocate.com.