GONZALES — Jason Verdigets, senior judge of the 23rd Judicial District Court, said Tuesday the court's judges and other local officials are seeking expedited approval of new civil court fees to pay for a new parish courthouse annex in Gonzales.

Legislation signed into law June 26 establishes an additional $150 fee for new civil filings, such as lawsuits and divorces, and an another $30 fee for additional pleadings. The fees will pay off long-term debt to build a bigger, more secure courthouse annex on the parish's east bank. The parish courthouse in Donaldsonville, the parish seat, will not be affected.  

Verdigets told the Parish Council recently that overcrowding and the poor safety design of the Gonzales courtroom annex finished in August 2003 is forcing the move. Criminal defendants awaiting court are housed in the same area as courthouse staff and judges. 

Though the new civil court fees, proposed by state Rep. Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, is set to take effect Aug. 1, the law requires that the Louisiana Supreme Court's 17-member Judicial Council first approve the new fee structure.

"We're hoping it's not going to delay it, but we're not sure yet," Verdigets said of the Judicial Council's pending decision.

Verdigets made his comments minutes after the Parish Council took another step on the courthouse annex financing: agreeing to seek State Bond Commission approval for $26 million in revenue bonds.

The proposal is set to go before the Bond Commission next week, said Jim Ryan, the parish's financial adviser. The revenue bonds, to be repaid by the proposed new fees, are scheduled for final approval by the Parish Council on Aug. 3.

It's unclear, however, if the Bond Commission would give its OK to the bonds if the Supreme Court has not yet approved the court fees to repay the debt.

If the Judicial Council acts quickly enough on the proposed fees, Ryan said, the parish could have funds available for construction as soon as September or October.

Ryan said the project has mitigating circumstances in its favor for speedy approval, including rising interest rates and the safety of the existing courthouse annex.  

An attempt to reach a spokesperson for the Supreme Court in New Orleans late Tuesday afternoon was unsuccessful.

Verdigets said the parish government is still working on hiring an architect to design the courthouse annex; rough plans so far envision a four-story, 80,000-square-foot building with as many as eight courtrooms, twice as many as the current number inside the courthouse annex along South Irma Boulevard. The proposed new courthouse annex would be built on vacant parish land next to the new parish administrative complex finished in late 2015.

The existing courthouse annex would get taken over by other local agencies, possibly the Sheriff's Office; the proposed new court fees also could be used to finance renovation of the annex.

When Verdigets appeared before the council in mid-May, the courthouse annex idea came as news to some members, who responded with some hesitancy.

But council members Teri Casso and Bill Dawson talked Tuesday about a recent visit they made with Verdigets and Parish Clerk of Court Bridget Hanna to the new Livingston Parish Courthouse.

Casso, the Finance Committee chairwoman, said the tour helped her and other council members learn about the intricacies of a modern courthouse and why one costs so much.

Dawson, the council chairman, said the tour taught him a lot about the importance of security and isolating criminal defendants from jurors and judges.

"I was one of those that had doubts about (the new courthouse annex), but I see the need for that isolation situation, and I am very supportive this," Dawson said. 

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.