Property offers sought for Avoyelles Justice Center

1/2-cent sales tax to fund project may be on Nov. 16 ballot

Bids are being sought from landowners on La. Hwy 1 from Marksville’s Acton Road to L’Eglise Street in Mansura as a possible site for the proposed Avoyelles Parish Justice Center.

The Justice Center was authorized by legislation last year and would house the parish’s courtrooms and judicial system offices.

Current plans envision a single-story building of approximately 40,000 sq.ft. located on at least nine acres -- and preferably more. The building and associated parking area would cost $8-9 million and be funded by a 1/2-cent sales tax.

That tax is expected to be put before voters on the Nov. 16 election ballot, attorney Mike Kelly said. Kelly is a retired assistant district attorney and a former parish indigent defender.

He stepped forward to be a leader in the formation of the Avoyelles Justice Center District, as well as working on possible site locations and architectural plans.

PLANNING GRANT

That effort was given a much-needed shot in the arm when the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe donated $50,000 to pay for planning costs. “I want to give a special thanks to Tribal Chairman Marshall Pierite and the Tribal Council for their willingness to invest in what they rightfully see as an economic development issue for this parish,” Kelly said.

Simmesport architect Wayne Coco was hired to work on those designs with that grant. However, without a place to build the complex it will remain a two-dimensional pen-and-paper image.

Without the money to build, maintain and operate the Justice Center and its functions, the selected site would never be able to be used for that purpose.

The Justice Center District is advertising for bids from property owners. Kelly admits the “best bid” would be a civic-minded philanthropist’s offer to donate the needed acreage to the district.

He also concedes that may be just wishful thinking.

There are a few conditions that must be met. Fortunately, Kelly has already identified several single-owner tracts that appear to meet all requirements.

“The land must be well-drained,” he said. “The owner must have a good, valid and merchantable title, free and clear of any mortgages, judgments, liens or other encumbrances.”

The acceptance of the bid and purchase of the property is based on voters approval of the 1/2-cent sales tax on Nov. 16. If the tax is approved, the property will be purchased by Jan. 31, 2020.

BIDS DUE APRIL 8

Sealed bids must be received by the Avoyelles Parish Justice Center District by April 8. They are to be addressed to Avoyelles Parish Justice Center District, P.O. Box 84, Marksville LA 71351 or brought in person to either Judge William Bennett or Kerry Spruill.

The bids will be opened at a public meeting at 3 p.m. on April 8 in the Division A courtroom on the 3rd floor of the Avoyelles Parish Courthouse in Marksville.

The bid should include a plat or diagram of the site and the total price for the tract and a per-acre price.

The Justice Center will include at least two large courtrooms, and possibly room for a third in the event the parish is ever given a third judgeship.

“I want to assure everyone there will be ample bathrooms for the public,” Kelly noted. Besides parking problems around the 91-year-old courthouse, one of the major complaints is that there is only one public bathroom on the 3rd floor that must be shared by men, women and inmates when the courts are in session.

There will also be water fountains -- which are not installed in the courthouse.

“There will be secured access for inmates, so they will not be mingling with jurors and the general public in small hallways like they are now,” Kelly said.

There will be offices for the indigent defender, felony and misdemeanor probation/parole, Drug Court, Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) workers and Families In Need of Supervision (FINS) program.

There will be auxiliary offices for the District Attorney’s Office and Clerk of Court for personnel in those agency’s to work in while they are in the building. Kelly emphasized that those two agencies will not relocate their operations to the Justice Center, but “will have a presence in the facility.”

NO ‘FREE MONEY’

Kelly said there is no “free money” available to build, maintain and operate the Justice Center.

The legislation that authorized the creation of the Justice Center District specifically states it will be governed by the elected judges in the district.

Kelly said state law requires the Avoyelles Police Jury is to provide the facilities to support the judicial system, including appropriate courtrooms.

However, the parish does not have the money to build those appropriate facilities and the current courthouse is not suitable, even if costly improvements were made.

Kelly said the courthouse was “grandfathered in” for many state and federal laws requiring public areas be handicapped accessible.

The new Justice Center would be fully compliant with all laws and codes.

“It is important that people understand we are not seeking to do this to give the judges a better office,” Kelly said. “We are doing this to give the public a better place to conduct their business when they have to court.”

Kelly said the courtroom is not just where “the thugs” go. Many people who never got so much as a parking ticket can end up in court over a civil suit, divorce, child custody, etc.

“This will be a completely modern facility,” he added. “It will be on one floor, so there won’t be any elevators and there will be no stairs.”

He said the current access to the third floor is inconvenient, if not almost impossible, for elderly and disabled individuals.

The elevator is not the original from 1927 -- as some people have theorized -- but “still gives me claustrophobia when I get in it,” Kelly said.

The alternative is a narrow staircase that was originally intended to be the back way to bring inmates to the 4th Floor, which is where the parish jail was located.

“It was never intended to be used by the general public,” Kelly said.

The main entrances and all of the side entrances were closed after Homeland Security cited the parish for numerous security violations.

The only public entry and exit is now the “sallyport” in the rear of the courthouse.

Kelly said he hopes when the courtrooms are taken out of the courthouse, the parish will be able to reopen at least the main front and rear entrances.

The 1/2-cent sales tax would apparently not violate the local sales tax ceiling, so no special permission would be needed, Kelly said.

It would generate about $2 million, of which half would be used to finance a bond issue to construct the Justice Center. The other half would be used to pay security personnel, pay maintenance -- and eventually repair -- costs and cover basic operating costs of the judicial system.

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