Lafayette Clerk of Court recommends separating the courthouse-jail tax as first step to building new courthouse _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by BRAD BOWIE -- The Lafayette Parish Courthouse

In a pitch he’s made before, Lafayette Parish’s Clerk of Court Louis Perret said Monday that it’s past time to replace the 50-year-old state district courthouse in downtown Lafayette, and he asked a citizens committee for help in implementing a first step.

Perret wants Lafayette City-Parish Government to amend the legal and accounting documents to separate Lafayette’s courthouse-jail tax, which was enacted over 30 years ago when Lafayette’s jail was on the seventh floor of the courthouse. The jail moved from the seventh floor in 1984 after the Correctional Center was completed nearby.

“Separating the courthouse and the jail would be a good start at helping the public see that the needs are real,” Perret told the Future Needs/Funding Sources Committee, a four-member body that advises city-parish officials on funding matters.

Chad Hanks, a Lafayette Parish sugar cane farmer who chairs the Future Needs Committee, said its members are gathering information on courthouse operations, which is funded by city-parish government.

Hanks said the committee could make a recommendation to city-parish officials before the end of 2015.

“We need to dig deeper,” Hanks said.

Perret said that when the downtown jail was built in 1984, there was no effort to separate or increase funding for both the downtown jail and the courthouse. Over the years, he said, more and more of the money collected from the courthouse-jail property tax has gone to fund the jail.

He said the courthouse in its current state lacks safety features needed to keep inmates, many of them violent, from getting too close to victims and witnesses during trials and hearings.

Perret was joined Monday by Rob Reardon, the Sheriff’s Office director of corrections, who also urged separating the courthouse-jail tax. Reardon agreed it was a good first step toward building a new courthouse and creating a reliable funding source — taxes — for construction and operations.

Lafayette has said no to a new courthouse before. In 2006, voters by a two-to-one margin said no to a 4-mill property tax that would have paid for a new courthouse, which at the time was projected to cost $65 million to $70 million.

In the same 2006 election, 68.6 percent of voters also said no to a 2-mill tax to maintain and operate the courthouse.

“We need a new courthouse,” Perret said Monday. “It is going to have to be built at some point.”

Perret said the best location for a new facility would be the Jefferson Street location that now houses an empty former federal courthouse. He said the cost to raze the old building and build a new state district courthouse now would cost $75 million to $80 million.

City-parish government is renovating the courthouse. Floors six and seven have been fixed up and are housing the Clerk of Court’s Office. Also upgraded are four of the building’s five elevators.

Meanwhile, floors one and two, in which the Clerk of Court’s Office operated, are closed for repairs.

Those repairs may be halted once money allotted by the city-parish runs out because refurbishment funds that were to come from Louisiana capital outlay dollars were not budgeted this year.

Perret said the current courthouse could be used by other city-parish departments.