In The News › Deal on Jefferson Parish arts center unlikely before Parish Council hearing Wednesday

Deal on Jefferson Parish arts center unlikely before Parish Council hearing Wednesday

By Manuel Torres, / The Times-Picayune
April 30, 2013

Jefferson Parish officials were still negotiating Tuesday with the contractor of the beleagueredPerforming Arts Center, but it appeared unlikely that a deal would be signed ahead of a Parish Council hearing on the project Wednesday (May 1).

Contractor Joe Caldarera wouldn’t discuss the negotiations Tuesday, confirming only that he planned to go through with a scheduled presentation to the council Wednesday. He sought the hearing after learning last week thatthe council is set to consider a resolutionauthorizing Parish Attorney Deborah Foshee to put Caldarera in default if negotiations break down.

Parish officials, who are facing increasing political pressure to end the project, have publicly clashed with Caldarera in recent days over who is to blame for construction delays and cost overruns at the arts center. The work, which began in 2007, was supposed to take two years and cost $26 million.

It’s now four years late and the cost is expected to reach almost $54 million under an agreement the parish and Caldarera are negotiating to complete the project.

Wednesday’s meeting begins at 9:30 a.m. at the parish General Government Building, 200 Derbigny St., Gretna.

Negotiations for that final agreement are still ongoing, Foshee and Parish President John Young said late Tuesday. Both officials said talks were making progress, and Foshee said both sides had exchanged drafts as recently as Tuesday afternoon. But Young and Foshee were non-committal when asked if a final agreement could get done by Wednesday, as the administration had hoped.

“I’m very optimistic that we are coming to terms, we’re very close,” Foshee said.

“Progress continue to be made on a global resolution,” Young said, that would include a set payment and a deadline for Caldarera to complete the work.

The payment being discussed reaches $9.75 million, Caldarera said last week, and would give him a year to complete the arts center.

Six council members last week said they would vote to give Foshee the green light to put Caldarera in default and to file a claim with the firm’s insurer. Council Chairman Chris Roberts proposed the resolution after the state delayed paying more than $3 million in funds earmarked to finish the project. State officials are refusing to pay for so-called delay charges, or the fees paid to a contractor for keeping equipment and workers on site beyond an expected date.

The resolution would not immediately trigger default procedures, but it would empower Foshee to make that call.

The proposal angered Caldarera, who requested time to make a presentation at the council meeting.

The contractor last week said the presentation will show he’s not at fault for the delays and that the parish has no basis to place him in default. Instead, he blamed more than 500 design changes requested by the parish – many of them to fix problems in the original design.

“This project is floundering, but it’s not floundering because of me,” Caldarera said last week.

He would not discuss Tuesday details of his presentation to the council, saying only: “A presentation will be given and it will speak for itself.”

The administration of then-Parish President Aaron Broussard endorsed payment of millions of dollars in additional costs, which the Parish Council approved. That brought the project’s tab up to $44 million by the time the Young administration took office in 2010.

The parish and Caldarera have been negotiating for months and they appeared close to a deal in recent weeks, saying they had reached an agreement in principle. That agreement was counting on $6.7 million the state committed to the arts center last year. But the administration said last week the state is seeking more documentation and has made clear it will not pay for work that has not been completed.

That added pressure on public officials, who face public criticism of the project at almost every council meeting. Advocates pushing to reduce political discretion in parish contracting, including the Bureau of Governmental Research and the civic group Citizens for Good Government, have used the arts center mess as a rallying cry.

Former Councilman John Lavarine told state auditors he picked the project’s architect, Wisznia Associates, because it was the only vendor, among those seeking the work, who personally asked him for the project. An evaluation committee had scored three other firms as more qualified to design the arts center, and the parish last year settled a lawsuit against Wisznia. The firm agreed to pay $1.3 million, but did not admit liability.

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