Is proposed Avoyelles Justice Center necessary or too expensive?
In two weeks the state will choose a new governor and parish voters will elect or re-elect a sheriff.
However, it seems there has been more talk in Avoyelles Parish the past few months about a proposed 1/2-cent sales tax than there has been about elected offices.
There is no “organized opposition” to the sales tax to fund the construction and operation of the Avoyelles Parish Justice Center -- a $9 million facility to house the courtrooms and judicial system offices.
If social media posts, letters to the editor and casual conversations are any indicator, the tax is in trouble.
However, those who support the need to move the court system out of the 92-year-old courthouse are working hard to make the case that the new center is necessary and will not be an expensive burden on parish taxpayers.
TOO MUCH MONEY?
On the “No” side of the argument, complaints focus on the amount of funding sought and the fact that 1/4-cent of the 1/2-cent tax will never expire.
The other 1/4-cent will end when the bond issue to construct the center is paid off.
The tax proposition states that will happen in 15 years, but it will most likely be paid off early if sales tax receipts remain stable.
The 1/2-cent sales tax will generate about $2.3 million a year. If half of the tax is dedicated to operating and maintenance costs, that would leave $1.15 million a year to pay on the bond issue.
If the 1/4-cent were to be collected for the full 15 years, it would total $17.25 million -- approaching twice the construction cost. However, in 10 years it would total $11.5 million.
Those opposed note that Avoyelles Parish already has one of the highest sales tax rates in the state.
The unincorporated areas of the parish pay 7.7 cents of state and parish sales tax. That would increase to 8.2 cents.
Most parish municipalities collect 2 cents of local sales tax. Some collect 1 of 1.5 cents.
OUTDATED & UNSAFE
The “Yes” side of the issue points to the outdated, crowded and unsafe conditions in the courthouse.
There is inadequate parking. There is one public restroom serving the entire 3rd Floor where the two courtrooms are located.
The proposed Justice Center will have ample parking and restrooms. In addition, inmates will be separated from the general public.
The courtrooms were once one large courtroom that was divided when the parish was granted a second judgeship.
Supporters said a third judgeship “is inevitable” as the number of civil and criminal cases in the parish continues to climb. There is no room for a third courtroom and the staff that would come with the creation of a third judgeship. A few years ago the Police Jury was forced to implement security measures that included reducing entrance and exit to the building to one door -- the “sally port” in the rear of the courthouse that was once used primarily for bringing inmates to and from their court appearances.
The other doors are now “emergency exits.”
There are no exterior fire escapes, which would mean those on the 3rd Floor -- where the largest concentration of people would usually be -- would have to climb down at least one flight of stairs or take the elevator to reach a fire exit with outside stairs.
One Justice Center supporter said it seems it would take a catastrophic event for citizens to realize the serious safety issues in the courthouse outweigh the cost of building a modern, separate justice center.
The Justice Center would be constructed to comply with modern security codes.
It would also be a one-story building that would be easier to exit in the event of a fire, as well as being more handicap accessible.
Supporters said a family that spends $10,000 in purchases of taxable goods would spend $50 a year on the 1/2-cent sales tax and only $25 a year once the bond issue is paid off.
Opponents argue that the current courthouse could be renovated, including using the former jail on the 4th Floor, for less money than building a separate facility.
Supporters said the cost of renovating the courthouse would be prohibitive and would cost approximately $15 million and still not solve the issues of parking and having to access the courts by elevator or stairs.
There has also been suggestions that the courtrooms be put in portable buildings.
Supporters said that is only a temporary solution and would create security issues. It would also not present a positive, progressive image of the parish.
The courtroom building “should be progressive and invite outside businesses to want to become part of this parish,” the supporters note on their website. “Would portable buildings project the image of the justice system in Avoyelles Parish that we need?”
There have also been concerns that moving the courtrooms would be tantamount to moving the parish seat to Mansura.
That is not the case, the Justice Center proponents said.
The 1927 courthouse will remain the seat of parish government. The Police Jury, clerk of court, assessor, registrar of voters, sheriff Civil Division, Office of Emergency Preparedness, permit office and state representative office would remain in the courthouse.
There would be a “satellite” office for the clerk of court in the new center.
There is space for a third courtroom that could possibly be utilized as a new site for the clerk’s office, but that idea has basically been shelved.
Moving the courtroom and judge’s offices out of the courthouse would also open up space to expand other agencies’ services to the public.
It would also allow the Police Jury to remove the security restrictions and reopen at least the main entrances on the front and back of the courthouse and possibly the side doors as well.
WILL ONLY GET WORSE
Supporters of the proposition contend the conditions in the courthouse will only get worse if the Justice Center is not built.
“The basic design and limited floor space and the ever-increasing criminal dockets have overcome the building,” they note on the website. “The Police Jury does not have the funding to address these issues.”
If the tax is not approved, the courts “will be forced to curtail the use of the courthouse by limiting the number of persons permitted on the 3rd Floor, resulting in delay in all proceedings,” they added.
It would take about three years to build the Justice Center.