In The News › Landrieu: Civil judges’ call for a new courthouse is not in taxpayers’ interest

Landrieu: Civil judges’ call for a new courthouse is not in taxpayers’ interest

By Rebecca Catalanello | The Times-Picayune

November 05, 2013

Of all the things New Orleanians need right now, a brand new 275,000 square-foot Orleans Civil District Court building is not among them, the city’s top executive says.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu on Monday characterized local judges’ efforts to obtain a newly constructed, free-standing courthouse in Duncan Plaza as self-serving and out of sync with broader efforts to improve the city.

“All they’re worried about is having a nice courthouse they can sit in where they can dispense justice,” Landrieu said during a meeting with the editorial board for | The Times-Picayune. “That’s what they’re worried about.”

Landrieu said that by contrast his working proposal to move the court and City Hall into the vacant, 1 million square-foot Charity Hospital building downtown represents a vital piece in the larger picture of revitalizing downtown and eliminating blight.

“This is the judges’ best chance to get a brand new set of courtrooms that in my opinion will be very beautiful,” he said.

Landrieu’s Charity plan has been at odds with the Civil District Court Judicial Court Building Commission’s efforts to secure a new facility for months.

Led by judges Michael Bagneris and Kern Reese, the commission sought to sidestep the mayor’s resistance by appealing to a state-created organization known as the BioDistrict for help obtaining state-owned land on Duncan Plaza for the project.

So far, that effort appears to be stalled. The BioDistrict has struggled to get a quorum of its 15 board members together to even discuss the plan. And leaders say they’ve heard nothing back from Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration regarding the agency’s interest in the land.

Nevertheless, on Sunday, the building commission advertised a request for qualifications from developers interested in designing a 220,000 square-foot courthouse and a 55,000 square-foot parking garage within the Central Business District. The deadline for submissions is Thursday.

“We, the building commission, we will build a new courthouse,” Bagneris said after being told of Landrieu’s comments. “Let me repeat that,” he said, pausing after each word for effect, “We … will … build … a …new … courthouse. Not a renovated one.”

Bagneris said the judges have their own funds for construction of a building he estimates will cost $105 million to $110 million. Through an increase in court fees, the judges have collected $100,000 to $125,000 a month, they say, to cover 65 percent of the new construction costs. The rest, their website says, will come from additional fees, new market tax credits and retail revenues.

Landrieu said he believes the judges still need the city’s backing for financial support. He also bristled at the size of the proposed building — a huge increase over the current 65,000 square-foot facility the court now occupies. What’s more, a controversial Bureau of Governmental Research report suggested the civil court could function more efficiently by cutting its number of judges from 14 to about seven.

“Why do you need the taxpayers to build you something three times larger than the building you have now when the BGR just issued a report saying you only need half the judges?” Landrieu asked.
Bagneris, however, said that the judges have not asked the city for anything other than what law already requires.

“Every parish supports its judicial system as a matter of law,” Bagneris said. “We cannot and will not attempt to repeal that statute. We just won’t. If we did that, we would be causing problems throughout the state.”

Bagneris said the city does currently support the court by maintaining the current building and paying utilities. But even if the city committed to do the same in a new facility, he said, the costs would be less than they would be at Charity, a 1930s art deco building that Landrieu’s administration estimates could cost nearly $270 million to renovate. The mayor’s plan would have the court occupy seven floors, according to records.

“We’ve never, never asked the mayor for anything,” Bagneris said. “We haven’t asked him for a dime to build in Duncan Plaza. Not a dime.”

He said the size of the proposed courthouse is in line with the recommendations of professionals well versed in best practices for modern courthouse construction. It includes a jury room, which the current courthouse lacks.

Bagneris also said that Landrieu’s Charity plan is partly dependent on the court to contribute $5 million to $6 million annually to the project.

Asked about that Monday, Landrieu did not answer directly.

“Well,” he replied, “the first question I would ask about a civil court request would be this: why do you need a new building? Why can’t you renovate what you have? And if you were to renovate a new building, should you take priority over the other 200 projects that are going on in the city right now? And why is building you a singular building in the best interest of the whole city as opposed to just you?”
Landrieu did point out several times, however, that while he wants to see the Charity proposal come to fruition, the plan is not one that he ever formally announced. It was first reported by | The Times-Picayune based partly on public records.

“The reason I didn’t announce that project is because I never announce a project unless I’m certain the project will actually get done on time, on budget,” Landrieu said.

Bagneris said the judges are not waiting around on Duncan Plaza — or, for that matter, Charity, which they say is not structurally conducive to house courtrooms.

They’ve started looking at other possibilities in the CBD, he said.

As long as it doesn’t involve the city’s money, Landrieu appears to be fine with that: “If push comes to shove,” he said, “and they can find a way to finance their own building — and listen to me, that means no money for capital, no money for operating costs, no money for land — then we don’t have to have this conversation any more.”

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