Contractor says he’s not to blame for performing arts center woes

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.
BY DANNY MONTEVERDE
New Orleans bureau

The LaPlace contractor who is building Jefferson Parish’s troubled performing arts center says that reports that he could be found in default of his contract next month is the latest example of the mismanagement and confusion that has plagued the project for years.

Joe Caldarera, of Joe Caldarera & Co., said he was “shocked” when he learned this week the Jefferson Parish Council was leaning toward blaming him for problems at the center, and possibly contacting his bond company to seek payment. Council Chairman Chris Roberts is scheduled to ask the council to authorize Parish President John Young to begin default proceedings against Caldarera at the board’s May 1 meeting.

Roberts’ resolution wouldn’t actually force Young to hold Caldarera in default, but it would allow the parish president to take that step in the future without any additional council action.

Caldarera said he’s been negotiating with parish officials for months to complete the project, and recently the two sides agreed to a settlement that would have gotten the work done within a year. Caldarera said he thought the parish was set to move forward, then he learned officials are considering placing him in default.

“I was blown out of my chair,” said Caldarera, who called the move an attack on his credibility as a contractor. “Based on what these people are doing, I’m not sure the settlement offer is going to stand … We’re talking about my reputation, my family and my name.”

Under the settlement, Caldarera said, the parish was supposed to pay him $7.5 million by March 30, and then pay him another $2.25 million over the next year as he completed work. He characterized the settlement as a $3 million “gift” to the parish, since Caldarera says he’s owed about $12.8 million.

“There’s really been no substantive payments since September 2011,” said Caldarera, who added that although the two sides agreed to the parameters of the deal, Jefferson Parish never actually made it formal. “They’ve kind of got me on hold.”

In an email to the administration, Roberts said council members were told for weeks that a settlement was pending, but last week they were told that Caldarera hasn’t finished most of the work that the parish received millions in state funding to complete.

In addition, the email says state officials have raised questions about some of the charges from Caldarera related to delays in the projects and are refusing to release about $3 million to $4 million.

Roberts said it looks like someone has “dropped the ball,” and the council must take action. “In my mind this leaves the parish with no other alternative,” Roberts wrote.

Caldarera disagreed with Roberts’ characterization of the status of the project and said he’s completed the bulk of the work, despite the council failing to formally approve roughly $12.8 million in change orders. He added that Perrin and Carter Inc., the company the parish hired to oversee the project, certified that he finished the work, and the parish never challenged that finding.

“I am still trying to collect my money from these people,” he said.

Parish Attorney Deborah Foshee said that based on the parish’s review of the project, Caldarera has completed the bulk of the work in the $8.4 million change order and only a small portion of the work in the smaller change order. However, she said that after meeting with Caldarera late on Wednesday, the parish believes a deal is in place and a settlement will be presented to the council for approval next month.

“I don’t even think this default thing is going to be an issue,” she said. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”

During the past six years, the performing arts center has become the parish’s most high-profile boondoggle. Initially designed as a two-year project that would be a showpiece for the arts, it has instead become a lightning rod for critiques on cronyism and financial mismanagement by citizen groups, residents and governmental watchdogs.

The project’s initial price tag of $26 million has roughly doubled, largely due to corrections needed to fix design omissions and errors. Last year, the parish settled a lawsuit with the initial architect of the project.

Caldarera noted that there have been more than 500 design changes and about 10 inspections by the state Louisiana State Fire Marshal’s Office that found deficiencies. Councilman Paul Johnston has called the project a “white elephant” and Councilman E. Ben Zahn III has suggested it be put up for sale.