GONZALES — The judges of the 23rd Judicial District and other court officials are eyeing a new Ascension Parish Courthouse, saying overcrowding and the poor safety design of the Gonzales courtroom addition finished in August 2003 are forcing their hand.
The proposed 80,000-square-foot building would cost up to $25 million, would be four-stories high and have as many as new eight courtrooms, doubling the current number in courthouse annex along South Irma Boulevard in Gonzales.
To be funded with a proposed $150 increase in civil filing fees currently under consideration in the Legislature, the new courthouse would be located on vacant land next to the new parish administrative complex, which was finished in the tail end of Parish President Tommy Martinez's administration in late 2015.
Senior Judge Jason Verdigets said safety and the lack of space is the primary reason he, the other judges and other court officials are seeking the new building.
"I don’t want to wait until someone gets hurt and then come, 'Oh, well now we need to do something.' I think we need to be proactive about it, not reactive, so I think it's that great of a concern that I'm here," Verdigets said minutes before he made a pitch to the Parish Council for financing help Thursday. "I mean trust me. I understand. I'm not in an old building that's falling down around me, which is what most people conventionally want before you do something."
Verdigets said there have been safety incidents and considers the lack of separation from the prisoners in the courthouse a "ticking time bomb."
One of the main worries is that judges', clerks', attorneys' offices and the prisoners' make-shift holding cell in the courthouse share the same hallway in the rear of the courtrooms. Growing criminal dockets mean there are 50 to 100 prisoners waiting hours in their small holding cell, Verdigets said.
Inside the courtrooms, Verdigets noted a lack of adequate spacing to accommodate the number of people cycling through the court system but also to ensure dangerous incidents don't occur.
For example, Verdigets said, prisoners who appear in court for non-trial days are ushered into jury boxes and are right next to the public seating area, while members of the public also sit right behind the attorneys, who have their backs to them.
In addition to the safety issues, the Gonzales courthouse doesn't have enough courtrooms or offices for all five judges in the 23rd Judicial District Court, a three-parish jurisdiction that includes St. James and Assumption parishes.
Though some of the judges are based in other parishes, all make rotations through the three parishes. Verdigets noted the judges based in St. James and Assumption have to share office space when they are in Gonzales.
Verdigets added that the four courtrooms also must accommodate Ascension Parish Judge Marilyn Lambert, who handles most misdemeanors, and the court's hearing officer.
The historic Parish Courthouse in Donaldsonville, the parish seat across the Mississippi River from Gonzales, does have a spacious courtroom that was renovated a decade ago but isn't used often.
Parish Clerk of Court Bridget Hanna also plans to consolidate three of her buildings, two in Gonzales and the large records room in the old Armory in Donaldsonville, in the new courthouse.
On Thursday night the Parish Council agreed to start the process of seeking authority for up to $26 million in financing through the Louisiana Local Government Environmental Facilities and Community Development Authority. While some welcomed the plan, others questioned why they hadn't learned more about the proposal sooner.
Councilman Benny Johnson said he agreed on the need but said the proposal had not been brought before any council committees and suggested backing the financing at this time was putting the cart before the horse. Once built, the courthouse will be the parish's building to keep up.
"I would much rather have preferred a more comprehensive plan or something to give us backing on what were fixing to do here," Johnson said.
One of his concerns was what would happen to the existing courtroom building and other buildings that would be vacated once the new courthouse is built.
Though Verdigets was reluctant to identify agencies, he said several already prepared to take advantage of the available space. It later emerged that the parish Sheriff's Office was looking at the courtrooms.
Airing several concerns, including over the proposed fees, only Councilman Daniel "Doc" Satterlee opposed starting the financing process. The resolution wasn't a final binding vote on the new debt, however.
On the same day council members tried to ferret out details of the emerging plan, the funding mechanism for the project, HB 327 by state Rep. Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, passed out of the House 90-0 and was headed to the Senate.
As proposed, the bill calls for adding $150 to the fees for initial civil filings like lawsuits and divorces and another $30 per additional pleading. Even with the fee increases, Ascension's filing cost of $375 would remain below Livingston and East Baton Rouge parishes' fees, Hanna said.
Based on the past five years of filings, the new fees would generate about $1.95 million annually. Debt service on the courthouse financing would be about $1.3 million, an analysis shows.
Jim Ryan, the parish financial adviser, said the fees, which could also be used for renovation of the existing courthouse and maintenance of the new one, would generate another $550,000 per year for those purposes after debt service.
Despite the positive motion, the courthouse plans are still in development. An architect has not been hired yet.
Verdigets said the judges did hire a firm to do a feasibility study and looked at expanding the existing courthouse but found there wasn't enough land. The study settled on a courthouse costing between $20 million and $25 million.