Length of stay at airport site uncertain
East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux could hardly contain his excitement as his staff unpacked the last moving boxes and settled into a renovated headquarters near Metro Airport.
The spacious facility allowed for the centralization of services in a 20,330-square-foot building that is a welcome reprieve to the congested conditions the agency faced at its downtown office.
But looming over the fanfare of a well-attended ribbon-cutting ceremony was the unanswered question of how long Gautreaux will remain in his new accommodations before being told to repack his bags and move across town.
“We’ve got a tremendous amount of room,” Gautreaux said during a walk-through Monday, noting officials had enough space to include a “meditation room” complete with three wooden pews and a stained glass cross.
“This is like being birds out of the cage,” Gautreaux said.
The opening of the Sheriff’s Office headquarters comes as the city-parish is moving forward at an uncertain pace with plans to bring the Baton Rouge Police Department and Sheriff’s Office under one roof at the former Woman’s Hospital campus. The 24-acre site, at Goodwood Boulevard and Airline Highway, would fulfill Mayor-President Kip Holden’s vision of establishing a joint public safety complex.
For his part, Gautreaux made clear Monday that he would prefer to remain in his new north Baton Rouge facility, which his office spent $788,000 renovating.
In an interview, he also accused city-parish officials of leaving him “out of the loop” on talks about moving into a joint complex.
Gautreaux said he’s not categorically opposed to sharing space with the Police Department but, “In a perfect world, I’d rather be right here where I am. They keep saying (a move) is going to happen, but I don’t have a clue.”
Holden’s chief administrative officer, William Daniel, countered that he has met personally with Gautreaux regarding the property acquisition. “He’s been in the loop and will continue to be in the loop,” Daniel said of the sheriff.
The differing interpretations underscore the tension that has arisen on occasion between Holden and Gautreaux. The two have clashed publicly before, including a highly publicized dispute involving federal Homeland Security grants.
Citing uncertainty over funding, Gautreaux said he still considers a joint public safety complex to be “up in the air.”
“I think you’ll see Baton Rouge City police move out there for sure,” Gautreaux said, referring to the old Woman’s Hospital site. “But I’ve been told that for them to do what they have to do to get it all done, they’re going to probably have to go back to a bond issue with the people.”
Daniel said he has heard no talk of a bond issue.
City-parish officials acknowledged shifting timetables for both the Police Department and Sheriff’s Office moving into the joint complex but insisted the project remains on course.
“I don’t know what’s unclear about it,” Daniel said. “I know that (Gautreaux) thinks there’s a lot of infrastructure work that needs to be done.”
Among the sheriff’s reasons for wanting to stay put is the proximity of his headquarters to the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, Juvenile Court and governmental offices along Harding Boulevard.
The building the Sheriff’s Office moved into once housed the state Department of Transportation and Development.
“I feel like I’m in the middle of everything that’s going on,” Gautreaux said.
The Sheriff’s Office began renovating the Jimmy Wedell Drive facility long before city-parish officials agreed this spring to borrow $11 million to acquire the former Woman’s Hospital campus.
The city-parish is legally responsible for providing facilities for the Sheriff’s Office, an arrangement Gautreaux described as leaving him at the city-parish’s “mercy.”
The Metro Council had approved the deal to relocate the Sheriff’s Office headquarters in March 2012, agreeing to a five-year lease in which the city-parish pays the airport $160,000 a year.
City-parish officials have spoken with the airport and do not expect any problems in ending the lease early, Daniel said.
When the lease was approved, Gautreaux said he expected to relocate within six months.
The sheriff attributes the unforeseen delays in part to “red tape with permits,” and issues with air conditioning and information technology.
He said Sheriff’s Office employees and trusties accomplished most of the work, cutting down on contracting costs.
“He took the ball into his court and took care of the problem that he had from a space and accommodation perspective,” Metro Councilman Joel Boé said of Gautreaux. “I knew that he wasn’t going to wait around to see what may or may not happen with Woman’s Hospital — if that ever comes to fruition.”
Daniel said extensive renovations done by the Sheriff’s Office added value to the property and will “make it more attractive for someone else to move in.”
Before moving to the location at the airport, the Sheriff’s Office had shared space with the Department of Public Works in the downtown municipal building next door to the 19th Judicial District Courthouse.
Daniel said the city-parish owned municipal building is expected to be empty by October as the Department of Public Works finishes its relocation.
The city-parish then plans to demolish the municipal building to create green space, but Daniel said there is currently no money in the budget to knock it down.
Daniel said it “makes a lot of sense” for the Police Department and Sheriff’s Office to share a facility.
“It lets them cooperate, see each other every day and share things like training facilities,” he said.
However, at least another $10 million will be needed to renovate the hospital to accommodate law enforcement needs, money Boé said will be tough to come by in a tight budget.
For the time being, it’s hard to overstate Gautreaux’s enthusiasm for his new headquarters, which includes a memorial for slain deputies and an outdoor break area for employees.
“In six years, I have never seen Sheriff Gautreaux as excited as I have seen him about this new facility,” said Casey Rayborn Hicks, the sheriff’s spokeswoman.
“He has always told us that we are a team and we are a family, and for the first time in six years, most of our team is under one roof and in one area.”