The Ascension Parish Council met virtually Thursday, May 7, where members voted in favor of a change order increase for the three-story courthouse in Gonzales. Additionally, the Council green-lit a jail expansion project.

Judge Jason Verdigets, Ascension Parish Sheriff Bobby Webre, and project manager Gasper Chifici were on hand to answer any questions about the courthouse project.

The Council voted in approval, with the exception of Joel Robert, who voted no. 

The change order increased the contract by $191,313 for access control, door hardware, fire suppression, and mechanical and electrical modifications.

In a separate motion, the Council voted in favor of increasing the contract time by 38 days.

The Lemoine Company, LLC, a general contracting and construction management firm, is the contractor for the project.

Chifici, said the changes to the project were requested by the Sheriff, Clerk of Court, and area judges.

Robert asked why fire suppression was not included in the original plan.

"At this point, I've had taxpayers reaching out to me. I don't agree with having to add more and more to this item," Robert said.

Council member Aaron Lawler asked about meeting with representatives of all entities involved to decide unforeseen contingencies.

“I don't think we ‘Cadillac-ed’ anything on this project,” Chifici said. “We didn't add a swimming pool to the third floor."

Lawler went on to express concerns about errors made in the process. He suggested hiring an auditor who would have full access to all departments.

"There have been incidents in the past few weeks where errors have occurred and they weren’t made known to the Council in a timely manner," Lawler said.

He said the signing of the change order April 6 was a “major concern.”

Council member Corey Orgeron echoed support for an auditor.

Council member Travis Turner asked if a mistake was made.

"This was not anything to do with a mistake,” Chifici said. “These were changes the sheriff, judges, and clerk all found necessary to the original plan."

Council Chair Teri Casso said she would like to add an item to the next finance meeting agenda and have “a robust discussion about it.”

When asked, Parish Attorney O'Neil Parenton said Parish President Clint Cointment’s signing “didn't follow the process.”

Cointment countered by saying it was a time-sensitive matter due to Council meetings being canceled during that time.  

Cointment said he would like to keep the “spirit of transparency,” and conduct an audit going back to 2015.

"If we're going to be transparent, let’s be transparent," Cointment said.

Lawler agreed to looking back, saying he would be “more than happy to put that into the budget.”

"I think that’s a wonderful idea," Orgeron added, suggesting to go back to 2015 and earlier.

In another item, the Council approved an intergovernmental agreement between parish government and the Sheriff’s Office to build additional dorms at the jail  for female inmates.

Sheriff Webre said he began looking into the project in February 2019. The work would improve the oldest portion of the jail, which he said has “serious plumbing issues.”

The jail has been outsourcing some female inmates to Madison Parish, which is located in the far northeastern corner of Louisiana, at a rate of $23 per day.

According to the Sheriff, the jail can currently hold 48 females. The roster has been consistently more than 50, incurring an estimated $50,000 per year in fees to outside parishes. 

Sheriff Webre said he wants to add beds to the jail and “bring females back to Ascension Parish where they should be.”

Council member Chase Melancon asked about the cost of moving the inmates to other parishes.

Sheriff Webre said it’s been difficult to find other parishes willing to take inmates. Additionally, there is a cost to transporting them. Also, the women are farther away from their families, courts, and defense attorneys.

The Sheriff said the male population has been managed well, despite the challenge in housing female inmates.

In answering a question from Council member Michael Mason, Webre said the number of female dorms would increase from 48 to 64.

Orgeron estimated the cost of the improvements would be recuperated in less than a year.

Turner, who serves as a criminal defense attorney, said he has witnessed the “great burden” jail transports have on his clients. He said they often take multiple trips, which ends up costing the parish more money in the long run.

The motion to approve passed without objection.