Council resolves no more state aid for arts center

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER --  The unfinished Jefferson Performing Arts Center. Contractor Joe Caldarera says he was shocked to learn that the Jefferson Parish Council is leaning toward blaming him for problems with the project.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The unfinished Jefferson Performing Arts Center. Contractor Joe Caldarera says he was shocked to learn that the Jefferson Parish Council is leaning toward blaming him for problems with the project.

Despite opposition from Parish President John Young, the Jefferson Parish Council has decided to bar parish officials from seeking any new state funding to complete the Jefferson Parish Performing Arts Center, and that decision could create some issues with getting the massive project completed.

Councilman Chris Roberts pushed through the resolution after arguing that the center is like a vampire sucking dry the parish’s political capital in the state Legislature because of its extensive delays and bloated price tag. Construction on the center began in 2007, and it was only supposed to cost $28 million. The project is now far behind schedule and more than $20 million over budget. Roberts said the parish’s constant requests for help with the center make it more difficult to get state help for other outstanding projects like improvements to the Harvey Tunnel or Fourth Street bridge.

“I’m no longer in a position where I’m going to allow these other things to be neglected because of a black hole that seems to have no end,” Roberts said. “I’m not comfortable with asking the state for any additional money.”

Roberts said he heard from a legislator that Jefferson Parish might be looking for even more funding for the project, which has been widely criticized as an example of government waste and inefficiency. Young and several council members took turns blasting the project, and Councilman Paul Johnston referred to it as a “white elephant” in his district.

However, Young also stressed that the parish doesn’t have the option of letting the project remain incomplete, and he worried that by passing the resolution the council could be making that more likely. Parish officials are seeking approval from the state bond commission to get about $6 million in outstanding funding, and Young thought the ordinance could hurt that process. In addition, while he said the parish isn’t currently seeking new money for the project, he didn’t want to rule out that option in the future.

“I don’t see why we need this resolution… I just want to let everybody know that this could jeopardize what we’re trying to do,” Young said. “Obviously I know there’s no appetite at the state Legislature (for more spending)… I don’t want to close out that particular option if we’re short.”

But Roberts was adamant that it was important that parish officials make clear that they will not be seeking more funding for the center if they want state legislators to consider helping on other projects. Roberts also argued that the council has been kept in the dark about what’s happening at the center. It was noted by some council members that work appears to have ceased at the site.

Roberts asked for an accounting of how much money the parish needs to finish the project and when the project will be complete. He also barred the administration from seeking any more money.

“I want to know what the hell is going on over there,” said Roberts, speculating that the council might need to request status updates at every meeting as it once did with the Army Corps of Engineers on levee projects. “I think it sends a message to the Legislature that we won’t be back out with our hands out.”

Young said his office is negotiating with general contractor J. Caldarera & Co. Inc. to try to work out a settlement to get work completed. There is an $8.2 million change order that the parish still has not paid, which is complicating things. Young said he wants to present the council with the information Roberts requested, but he wasn’t able to discuss it on Wednesday. He also said that since the center began as state project it makes sense that the state will help to complete it.

“That’s where we need to go,” Young said. “Everything hinges, quite frankly, on whether we get bond council approval.”

Johnston said he’s not sure where the parish should go on the project but he’s very concerned about what would happen if funding dries up.

“Where do we go if we don’t go to the state to finish it?” Johnston asked.