New Livingston courthouse on path to completion

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Livingston Parish is building a new courthouse to replace the one with space and security problems. A construction worker, left, uses a sledgehammer while building forms. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Livingston Parish is building a new courthouse to replace the one with space and security problems. A construction worker, left, uses a sledgehammer while building forms.

Finding funding for a new courthouse in Livingston Parish has been like walking the maze of narrow halls in the old one.

For more than a decade, officials ran into dead ends in a winding path to replace the courthouse, which had repeated additions that District Attorney Scott Perrilloux said made it a security, space and even navigational nightmare.

Parish officials involved in the project say they have found not only a major funding source, but also numerous smaller amounts needed to overcome the shortfall.

A contractor has just finished driving pilings for the new building after a string of wet weather that officials confirm is forcing completion to be pushed back from April to June 2014.

“Given how long the process has taken, a delay of a couple of months is a drop in the bucket,” 21st Judicial District Chief Judge Robert Morrison said.

For years, Morrison has been one of the outspoken advocates of a new courthouse, citing the problem of crowding witnesses, families of defendants, families of victims and sometimes prospective jurors into the same small areas outside courtrooms.

What local officials lacked to build a new courthouse was money, he said.

Six agencies put up a total of $900,000 to purchase land for a new courthouse complex 12 years ago. Subsequently, local government found funds to build two governmental buildings on that land, but were unable to find money to build a courthouse.

In 2010, Clerk of Court Tom Sullivan said he couldn’t stand to see the situation continue, and proposed raising his office’s filing fees in order to pay for a new courthouse.

After clearing judicial and legislative hurdles, the parish used the proceeds from those fees as a financial foundation to sell bonds to construct the building.

The $17.2 million those bonds produced turned out not to be enough when the low construction bid came back last year at $18.4 million and the total costs were projected at almost $20.4 million, said Ann Wimberly, of the clerk’s office.

Since then, numerous agencies, individuals and companies have been working to find ways to finish all aspects of the project, including interior finishing of the offices for agencies that plan to move in, Wimberly said.

The agencies moving into the courthouse pledged $1.8 million for the finish work with their shares depending on the amount of space they will occupy in the new building. It appears that the Clerk of Court’s Office and the Sheriff’s Office will each owe roughly $600,000, the District Attorney’s Office will owe about $300,000 and the judges will owe a total of about $300,000 for their office space, Sullivan said.

The Livingston Parish Council agreed to put up $300,000 of its road funds on a Government Boulevard extension, which is part of the project, said Marshall Harris, chairman of the council.

Local officials then worked with the various contractors involved to get them to cut $622,722 from the contract cost in return for securing a sales tax exemption on the building materials purchased for the project, Harris said.

By working with contractors to change some of the items going into the courthouse, another $225,000 has been cut from the price without hurting the quality of the building, architect Jay Labarre said.

Enough other changes have been identified to bring the project into budget, Labarre said.

Just as important, the actual costs of the project have stayed on target despite the rainy weather that has pushed the projected completion date back, Labarre said.

“We made it through the wettest winter on record with minimal impact” on both the schedule and on the cost of the project, which only went up $14,000, Labarre said.

Parish government, the architect, the agencies that will move into the courthouse and the contractor, Cangelosi Ward Inc., have cooperated to make the situation work, and there now appears to be enough money to complete the project, Parish President Layton Ricks said.

The space will provide what the parish needs, but won’t be extravagant, Labarre said.