Jeff Council wants settlement with arts center contractor in 30 days

Jefferson Parish Council members agreed to give Parish President John Young’s administration 30 more days to work out a settlement with the contractor building the troubled Jefferson Parish Performing Arts Center or they could instruct the administration to put that company in default.

The council unanimously decided to delay authorizing the administration to begin the process of finding Joe Caldarera and Co. in default for failure to complete the center. Councilman Chris Roberts proposed that action after recent settlement discussions between the company and the parish appeared in jeopardy.

Young said a settlement could be in place shortly if the parish receives $6.75 million in funding from the state. The basic framework of that deal would require contractor Joe Caldarera to finish construction of the center within a year of receiving a $7.5 million payment from the parish. Over the course of that year, the parish would pay Caldarera an additional $2.25 million. Young said a settlement has been his goal for months.

“I’ve always said since last fall that we’re trying to work on a global settlement,” Young said.

The council’s decision came after Caldarera gave a lengthy presentation reiterating his belief that the delays in the performing arts center project are due to the numerous changes required by problematic blueprints and recurring funding issues.

He characterized the settlement as his attempt to help the parish by settling for roughly $3 million less than what he’s owed for work at the center. In addition, Caldarera stressed that his company has done nothing that would justify putting it in default, and he bristled at the suggestion that he has somehow failed to do his job.

“That’s not right; it’s absolutely false,” Caldarera said. “There are no grounds, absolutely no grounds, for default.”

The performing arts center has been a hot button issue in the parish for years, and at times the project has been labeled a “boondoggle” and a “white elephant.”

The parish sued the original architect on the project for problems with the design. The cost of the project has nearly doubled from its initial $26 million price tag, and it has far exceeded its two-year projected construction time.

Caldarera’s presentation stressed that there have been roughly 750 changes needed in the building, and more than 500 of them have required changes to the blueprints. Those problems have included adding roof drains, adding entrances and steps, moving around structural beams and much more, he said.

There were roughly $12.7 million in changes requested since 2011, and Caldarera says that about $10.8 million of that work has been completed. However, he said the parish has not paid him for any of that work, largely because officials don’t have the money. Typically, public projects include contingency funds used to pay for unexpected issues, but the size and level of changes needed for the performing arts center rendered any contingency fund inadequate, Caldarera said.

“It is an issue that has to do with the size of the problem being beyond normalcy,” he said. “There is not a delay on this project that we have not resolved if it was our fault.”

Roberts said he suggested considering default proceedings because the council was told last month that Caldarera’s company might have overcharged the parish for materials.

Those discussions came up during closed door meetings between the council and parish attorney’s office about a settlement, he said. Roberts added that those conversations also suggested that state funding needed for the projects might be stymied. Given those developments, Roberts said the council had to consider default.

“I don’t know how we in good conscience can go to the state and ask them to pay for anything,” Roberts said. “When that’s told to us, what other option do we have at that point?”

Caldarera was upset at the suggestion that he overbilled the parish, but Parish Attorney Deborah Foshee noted that those questions were raised by the Legislative Auditor’s Office several years ago. She said those comments were only a small part of a larger discussion, and should not distract from the fact that the parish wants a settlement agreement.

One of the sticking points in that settlement has been whether the state will pay the entire $6.75 million the parish was expecting, but she said it looks like that problem could be rectified by the end of the month.

Foshee said that while the parish disputes some of Caldarera’s contentions about the project, the ultimate goal is to get the settlement in place.

“I could put on a Power Point presentation that refuted every one of Joe’s points and 15 more,” Foshee said. “We are working very hard to make a resolution here.”

Young said he’s hopeful that a deal will be in place shortly, and he’s optimistic that performances could be held at the center by the end of the year. Young added that while many council members and his administration inherited the issues at the performing arts center, residents just want parish officials to find a solution to the problem. If the state provides the funding that’s expected, that will happen.

“It is certainly in the best interests of the parish, and more importantly of the citizens of this parish, to finish this project,” he said. “The issue is that we need that money from the state.”

Councilman Paul Johnston, whose district includes the center, said he’s just ready for the parish to move forward. Residents are irate about all of the issues with the construction, and Johnston said he needs to be able to give them a clear time line for completion. He said it’s frustrating that the parish continues to promise a settlement that doesn’t materialize.

“We’re all frustrated … We’re trying to get this thing resolved,” he said.