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Month in Review

No Place for the Poor

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
– Franklin D. Roosevelt

Thousands of New Orleanians poured into the assessor’s officer in recent weeks, many to protest hikes in their property tax assessments. It’s no small wonder that New Orleanians who are working hard and in some cases outright struggling just to keep a roof over their heads are concerned about having to pay more in property taxes.

A higher tax bill in a stagnate economy is bad, but higher taxes aren’t the only issue. It may not even be the biggest one.

It seems this great city of ours is just no place to be poor.

People’s paychecks aren’t keeping up with the cost of living—a fact evident by the recent “revelation” that many New Orleanians would not be able to sustain their families for three months based on their assets (or lack of) if they were to lose their jobs today or tomorrow. More than 25 percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. And the per capita income, based on census data, is less than $25,000.

Still, rents are high. The average for a two-bedroom apartment, according to apartmentratings.com, is more than $930. For a person earning a little less than $25,000 before taxes, $930 in rent represents considerably more than half of one’s take-home pay over the course of a month. Then, there are groceries to buy, utilities to pay.

Meanwhile, the poorest Louisianans will suffer from the deep cuts to Medicaid taking place under the Jindal administration. In fact, in Louisiana, earning more than $5,000 a year already makes you ineligible for Medicaid and Gov. Jindal has made it clear that he will not make the necessary changes to the system to extend Medicaid in the state under President Obama’s healthcare law.

And now low and modest income, first-time home buyers have to compete with individuals who make more money and have home-buying experience for mortgage loans available through a new program offered by the Finance Authority of New Orleans. It has no income cap for participants and can be used to purchase homes priced up to nearly $325,000. Of course, the idea of people of all means buying homes in Orleans is no problem for us. But we have to wonder what banks, when given the choice and chance to loan to someone with considerable income as opposed to someone with low or moderate income, will do. Those with significant incomes typically do not need special programs to help them qualify for home loans. So why put resources there when others need them much more?

In short, it’s hard out here for the poor. And it’s getting harder. But neither this city, state or country will ever live up to its fullest potential without doing more to provide all of its citizenry with access and opportunity to make their dreams a reality. But we can start with simply owning a home, putting their children through college without going into astronomical debt, and being able to retire with dignity.

Our political and business leaders must do better at addressing the needs of everyone in our community or our city will remain in peril. Perhaps Aristotle put it best when he said “Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime.”

Transparency Now

There are just too many unanswered questions regarding how the state’s new voucher program operates. How are the private schools selected for participation determined? How are students selected? What criteria will be put in place to ensure that these schools are doing what they are supposed to be doing—which, we are led to believe, is a better job at educating children than the public school they would otherwise attend. Otherwise, draining all of that money from public education would turn out to be an awful waste.

Oddly enough, we have recently come to learn that many parents and even private school officials are not quite sure how this so-called scholarship program is supposed to work.

Instead of transparency now, state Supt. of Schools John White wants us to wait. Make no mistake about it, what we will be waiting for is John’s whitewash of the facts – his efforts, as he has put it in the no-so-distant past, to “muddy” the narrative as it relates to the state’s voucher program.

In the end, public money—our money—is being used to fund this program. And that fact alone makes public disclosure of its details on demand a mandate that John White should not be allowed to circumvent.

Staying out of Grown Folks Business

So now it is abundantly clear exactly what Ed Quatrevaux does for the city of New Orleans. He gets to sit from his perch on high and point to this agency or that entity and say, “Mmmm, I bet fraud and waste could possibly, maybe, perhaps and perchance happen there. So let’s have your people pay my people to sit over your shoulders and comb through your records. And we’ll only charge you $1.4 million a year do it. I mean at least we’ll make sure the $1.4 million you pay us will be the only money you waste.”

That is essentially what Quatrevaux did when he fired off a letter to the mayor, city council and media saying that Sewerage & Water Board was “the most likely of the city’s component entities to engage in fraud, waste and abuse,”

Of course, Quatrevaux had to clarify himself later by stating he was not alleging any fraud in S&WB, only that there is the “risk” – kind of like the risk you take when you walk out of your front door, right.

Let’s get real. With talk of a rate increase along with millions more in FEMA funding coming down the pipeline to make continued Katrina-related repairs, what Quatrevaux really sees is the opportunity to make himself and his office appear way more relevant than they really are.

At The Tribune, we say a leader in this city finally needs to display the intestinal fortitude required to tell ol’ Ed to sit down and shut up. Oh, wait. S&WB Executive Director Maria St. Martin already did that when she fired off a letter of her own. In her letter, she set ol’ Ed straight on a few things regarding the agency’s operation, including the facts that S&WB’s finance department has received awards from the Government Finance Officers Association for several years for its fiscal management of the agency, that it has already followed any corrective action steps recommended by an independent auditor to improve operations and management as of last year, and that the correct figure of a little more than $12.1 million that S&WB pays for its employee and retire healthcare costs breaks down to a per-person cost of $6,733 – a figure St. Martin says is less than the city’s cost to provide health insurance for its employees and retirees.

However, our favorite paragraph in the letter from St. Martin to Quatrevaux was this one:

“It is unfortunate and perhaps even irresponsible for an individual in your position to have authored such a letter to our Mayor and to the local media without first having checked on the accuracy of the purported facts that you represent in your correspondence.”

We say, way to go Ms. St. Martin! Kudos to you for telling Mr. Quatrevaux to get his facts straight and to stay out of grown folks’ business (okay, maybe we threw that last part in). But St. Martin’s candor and directness in addressing Quatrevaux’s baseless assessments are reflective of the sort of leadership and governance the people of our community deserve at every level.

Finally, Something to Smile About

With so much off-center throughout the community, we relish a little feel good news anywhere we can find it. So we were buoyed to learn that Sterling Farms is on its way to opening its first grocery store. And we were even more excited to learn that it recently introduced itself with a bang. With banners heralding that it is “coming soon” hanging above, Sterling Farms gave away more than 500 free bags of groceries to area seniors and others in need.

The giveaway took place on Lapalco Boulevard (at the corner of Ames) in Marrero in front of the former Winn-Dixie store that will be the home of the metro area’s first Sterling Farms, a venture involving actor and New Orleans native Wendell Pierce and local businessman Troy Henry aimed at bringing more healthy and affordable food choices to underserved communities in areas considered food deserts. Jefferson Parish District 3 Councilman Mark Spears, whose district includes the store location, was instrumental in spreading the word about the store’s grocery giveaway as well as its impending opening.

The free bags were filled with fresh produce like potatoes, melons, onions, avocado and apples and offered a glimpse into the type of high-quality, fresh foods customers can expect to find at Sterling Farms. The store will also feature a deli, bakery, frozen foods section, a seafood counter and offer about 40,000 items. There will be a free shuttle for customers who purchase $50 in groceries as well as monthly fundraisers to benefit the community.

We think a business should not only exist in a community, but should serve and empower it. And we look forward to the grand opening of what we hope will be the first of many Sterling Farms grocery stores.


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