Livingston Parish opened a courthouse annex last week, but its plans for a complete new courthouse remain in limbo.
Bids received last month on a proposed $18.4 million courthouse exceed the amount the parish has bonded for the building, and officials are scrambling to find a financial solution.
The newly opened annex serves as a stopgap measure by adding a courtroom, but doesn’t solve the bigger problems that exist with the current courthouse, said Bob Morrison, chief judge of the 21st Judicial District Court.
For more than a decade, Morrison and other parish officials have sought to build a courthouse to replace the 1941 building that confounds them with roof leaks, plumbing problems, lack of space, security issues and a labyrinth of hallways that connect numerous additions while at the same time confusing visitors.
An even bigger worry, said District Attorney Scott Perrilloux, is the lack of separate space for jurors, defendants and witnesses as well as friends and relatives of the victims and the accused involved in court cases.
In addition to legal issues, safety problems can occur when people in such groups are able to mingle, the district attorney said.
Other safety concerns are raised by the dozen entrances and exits too numerous to be manned by deputies with metal detectors, Perrilloux said.
Perrilloux’s office was among six agencies that put up a total of $900,000 to purchase land for a new courthouse complex 11 years ago, but the parish wasn’t able to find grants or other funding sources to construct a courthouse on the property.
Clerk of Court Tommy Sullivan thought he had found a solution when he increased various filing fees in his office and dedicated the extra money to building a courthouse.
Based on that income, the Parish Council sold bonds to build the structure on the land purchased years earlier.
The low bid received last month was about $1.3 million more than the council was able to raise by selling bonds, Parish President Layton Ricks said.
That causes a dilemma because “we are never again going to get it done at this cheap of a rate,” Ricks said.
“I think we got a good price,” Perrilloux said of the low bid submitted by one of nine competing contractors.
Architect Jay Labarre agreed, saying the agencies involved have been trying to find a way to move forward on that bid.
“This gold ring is not going to come again” as construction costs continue to rise, he said.
The architect said he was pleased with the $168-per-square-foot low bid the parish received, given the need for security equipment, backup generators and other specifics required of a public building that houses emergency responders such as the Sheriff’s Office.
The design offers opportunities for expansion as the parish continues to grow, Labarre said.
The agencies that will have space in the new courthouse have not sought more room than they need or made any attempt to create lush offices, the architect said.
When the bids came in, “there was a funding shortfall, but we always knew there would be a funding shortfall,” Labarre said.
Labarre said it was obvious from the beginning that the bonds sold wouldn’t be enough to complete the 109,000 square-foot building as specified, but that officials with the agencies involved felt they might be able to come up with additional money and may be able to leave some interior parts of the building temporarily unfinished.
They are exploring those possibilities now and the Parish Council has until the middle of the month to accept or reject the bid, he said.
Marshall Harris, chairman of the Parish Council’s Finance Committee, said he thinks the council may be able to come up with about $300,000 for needed roadwork for the proposed new courthouse, but it doesn’t have any other money to spare.
It’s possible that the project might have to be put out to bid again, but inflation could lessen the likelihood of constructing a courthouse if that happens, he said.
Officials interviewed said they have no specific plans for the old courthouse, which several referred to as being obsolete.
If a new courthouse can be built, the annex that opened last week would remain in use, Morrison said.
The chief judge said the annex would become the area where Juvenile Court cases would be heard.
That 12,000-square-foot annex provides the parish with office space and a second large courtroom to go with three smaller ones.
The state provided $1.7 million to purchase and remodel the property for the annex.
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