10-1 Council vote seeks $26 million Bond Issuance for “new” Courthouse

Built just over a decade ago, Gonzales Courthouse sacrificed function to form

Standing room only crowds are the norm whenever Ascension Parish Court is in session at Gonzales “new” Courthouse.  Despite its futuristic appearance the four courtrooms housing seven courts is behind the times in the fastest growing parish in Louisiana and Thursday’s Parish Council adopted a resolution to issue $26,000,000 in bonds to fund its replacement.  The resolution parallels House Bill 327 which would increase civil filing fees, unanimously passed through Louisiana’s lower chamber earlier the same day.

If all goes as planned an 80,000 square foot complex would be built across E Worthey St alongside Ascension’s “glass house,” the Governmental Complex which opened at the end of 2015.

The bill was authored by Representative Clay Schexnayder with support of every Ascension legislator except Representative Ed Price who was absent.  Price is slated to face Warren Harang, III in Saturday’s runoff election to fill the vacant District 2 State Senate seat.  HB 327 would increase civil suit filings from $120 to $150; and impose a “charge of thirty dollars upon the filing of each additional pleading in a civil matter which shall be paid to the Ascension Parish Clerk of Court when such filing is made.”

“Additional pleadings shall include but are not limited to petitions, motions, orders, affidavits, judgments, witness lists, exhibit lists, memorandums, sheriff returns, notices, interrogatories, stipulations, exhibits, discovery requests, written reasons for judgment, exceptions, rules, correspondence, citations, evidence, dismissals, depositions, writs, appeals, answers, and subpoenas…The charges provided in this Section shall apply to all civil filings in all Ascension Parish Courts and be in addition to other filing charges currently being levied and collected by the Ascension Parish Clerk of Court for civil filings.”

“With 50-100 inmates on regular criminal dockets we have a dangerous situation,” Judge Jason Verdigets told the Council, adding that inmates come into “close contact with court personnel, lawyers, and even the public.  And dockets are only getting bigger.”

Judge Tess Percy Stromberg, Clerk of Court Bridget Hanna, and Judge Jason Verdigets attended Thursday’s Council meeting

He raised the prospect of criminal defendants, those who have not bonded out of jail, going free due to delays in conducting trials.

“Some defense attorneys take of advantage of that,” Councilman Travis Turner, himself a criminal defense lawyer, said of the Constitutional guarantee to a “speedy trial.”

Judge Verdigets assured that each of the entities utilizing the courthouse regularly (District Attorney, Sheriff, Clerk of Court, and seven judges) support the bond issue.  He was joined by Judge Tess Percy Stromberg and Clerk of Court Bridget Hanna in support of the bond issue.  23rd Judicial District includes three more District Court judges, Parish Court Judge Marilyn Lambert, and the Administrative Court Hearing Officer who all use four courtrooms.

If HB 327 passes through the Senate it is projected to generate an extra $2 million annually with which to pay off the $26,000,000 bond (assuming Louisiana’s Bond Commission signs off too). Annual debt service is projected at $1.3 million per year leaving $550,000 surplus annually according to Ascension’s go-to financial expert, Jim Ryan.  All to fund a state of the art, 80,000 square foot facility with “ample parking.”  Courthouse parking spots are at a real premium at present.

“Fees would still amount to less than two of our neighboring parishes,” Judge Stromberg assured.  “Livingston and East Baton Rouge fees are both more than what we’ll have even after the proposed legislation is adopted.”

Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee noted the relative newness of existing facilities, pointing out the waste and citing his own polling of constituents who roundly oppose the bond.  Judge Verdigets responded that multiple agencies are interested in using the current building.  And one “potential occupant” is willing to contribute to its renovation Council Chairman Bill Dawson added.

By all means, let’s get that docket moving. Criminal defendant/President Kenny Matassa’s next court date is August 14 after a May 8 “not guilty” plea.

According to Parish President/Criminal Defendant Kenny Matassa, whose prosecution is further clogging those criminal dockets, Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office has expressed interest in using the current facility.  “The sheriff is coming out of his pocket $300,000” for renovations according to Matassa.

Councilman Benny Johnson, doing his best “Doc” Satterlee impersonation, expressed displeasure that the bond issue appeared on the Council’s agenda without vetting by the Finance Committee and without his opportunity to review same.  Johnson joined the 10-vote majority; Satterlee did not.

HB 327 would see all “monies generated…remitted…monthly by the Ascension Parish Clerk of Court directly to the Department of Finance for the parish of Ascension…” and “irrevocably deposited into the Ascension Parish Courthouse Fund dedicated exclusively to the design, acquisition, furnishing, construction, renovation, equipping, operation, and maintenance of a new Ascension Parish courthouse, and to renovate or convert any existing courthouse building, located in the parish of Ascension, and for the payment of any bonds or other indebtedness on any such facilities.”