GONZALES — Ascension Parish government officials are going forward with a nearly $6.5 million administrative complex, though bids came in almost $1.5 million more expensive than planned.
Saying the building won’t get any cheaper due to high materials costs and a competitive construction market, parish officials argued this week the building is needed to consolidate parish offices, cut rental costs and keep up with the space demands driven by population growth.
Parish President Tommy Martinez noted growth has already driven significant additions to the parish jail in Donaldsonville and the courthouse annex in Gonzales.
“The School Board’s building a school every year, so parish government’s not any different,” Martinez said. “The parish is growing, and guess what? We have to grow into it, too.”
Late last month, Martinez said the high bids might prompt cuts to the complex plans, but he also noted the parish would have an unexpected $1.6 million in sales tax revenue this year.
His administration has agreed to meet with a consultant suggested by council Chairman Chris Loar to find ways to cut, but the low base bid and alternates from SBS Construction won unopposed council backing Wednesday at a cost of $6.47 million.
The parish had set aside a $5 million surplus from the defunct East Ascension Hospital to pay for the building. The new complex will be built on the site of the now-demolished hospital near the intersection of South Irma Boulevard and East Worthey Road in Gonzales.
Several parish departments are slated to move into the contemporary 32,332-square-foot building, including finance, grants, the parish president’s office, planning and zoning, permits and information technology. This consolidation will open up space at other parish offices and allow the parish to end $80,000 per year in lease payments for District Attorney Ricky Babin’s Gonzales office.
In one signal of the pressure growth is putting on space, parish government added 88 employees between 2008 and 2013, bringing the total number of employees to 528 in 2013. That includes employees such as firefighters and health unit workers who will not be housed at the new building.
On Monday, Ascension Chief Administrative Officer Ken Dawson showed a council committee images of overcrowded offices at parish-owned and leased buildings.
The pictures included the 2,000-square-foot District Attorney’s Office in Gonzales, with workers amid piles of papers and files; a former aerobics room at Lamar-Dixon Expo Center, where the parish Utilities Department is now housed; and a small, metal shed in the yard of the Department of Public Works complex on Churchpoint Road.
“This is the office of the chief engineer of Ascension Parish. I mean a building we could build at Home Depot,” Dawson told the committee as members viewed the image of the shed.
Drainage and Public Works will stay in the DPW complex once the new administrative building is built, but the departure of the permits office and Planning and Zoning Department will free up space.
Babin said his office is busting at the seams and his assistant district attorneys don’t have a place to work and must work at a conference table.
When the new complex is built, Babin will move into the existing parish administrative building in downtown Gonzales, with several thousand square feet of added space.
The higher prices for the project came through a second round of bids. The first bids came in at $7 million, Martinez said.
Parish officials reduced the size of building somewhat for this round, but Martinez said he wasn’t going to rebid the project a third time.