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Story Archives: Economy, hurricanes top stories in 2008
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|Economy, hurricanes top stories in 2008|
The aftermath of Hurricane Gustav, the closure of Bastrop's International Paper and the ongoing saga at Monroe City Schools were some of the top local stories that dominated headlines in 2008.
Almost two million people fled homes across southern Louisiana and as many as 20,000 made their way to northeastern Louisiana to wait out Hurricane Gustav, which made landfall in early September.
Once Gustav reached northeast Louisiana, it drenched the region with heavy rainfall, devastating local crops and flooding many homes throughout the area.
The remnants of Hurricane Ike, which struck Texas just south of Houston, followed one week later, but northeast Louisiana was spared with little to no rainfall.
According to Commissioner of Agriculture Mike Strain, among the hardest hit crops in terms of total lost revenue were soybeans, cotton, aquaculture and fisheries, timber, sugarcane, corn, rice, sweet potatoes and shrimp.
Concerning lost revenue in various segments, soybeans appeared to be the hardest hit, with approximately $153 million in lost revenue on the year.
According to LSU AgCenter economists, other losses include cotton, $137 million; timber, $92 million; sugarcane, $87 million; corn, $66 million; rice, $34 million; sweet potatoes, $34 million; and shrimp, $31 million.
"Over $1 billion worth of damage," Strain said.
It took more than a month for Ouachita Parish and nine other nearby parishes to be added to a federal disaster individual assistance list. The disaster designation made available federal government assistance for people who suffered losses because of hurricanes.
Mayor Jamie Mayo said the designation was needed as "the people of Oregon Trail and other areas in Monroe, West Monroe, Tanglewood and so many other places in Ouachita Parish and these 10 parishes suffered catastrophic losses."
High Gasoline Prices
During this timeframe, residents also were hit hard with soaring fuel costs as the price of gasoline reached almost $4 per gallon throughout Ouachita Parish.
Many residents began limiting the amount of driving and some eliminated other expenses so they could afford gasoline.
Meanwhile, a faltering economy didn't help matters as major corporations and businesses across the United States announced layoffs. Some went bankrupt.
For months, economists speculated the U.S. economy was in the midst of a recession. That speculation proved to be true in light of recent news reports, which state the economy began to slide in December 2007.
Northeast Louisiana was shocked in late November when International Paper announced it would close its Bastrop mill. About 550 people were left jobless.
Officials in Bastrop said the city would lose one-third of tax revenues because of IP's closing.
The mill generated a $30-million annual payroll and contributed roughly 30 percent to the Morehouse Parish economy.
Local economist Bob Eisenstadt warned the IP closure would affect the region for years to come. He said it could take up to two years before the area absorbs the loss.
"Over a period of time, we could see as much as an $80 million contraction in household income throughout the area, concentrated mostly in Morehouse and Ouachita parishes," Eisenstadt said.
Meanwhile, Gov. Bobby Jindal announced the appointment of an economic development expert to develop a transition plan for the community following the mill's departure.
"We are going to find a way to create an opportunity out of this situation," Jindal said.
The Bastrop mill was built in 1929 and has long been considered the backbone of the Morehouse Parish economy.
International Paper had considered closing the mill in 2006 but transitioned the mill in 2008 with a $10 million investment to convert the mill from finished paper products to producing pulp.
Monroe City School Board
Back on the home front, few local governmental bodies have been as fraught with poor public opinion as the Monroe City School Board experienced in 2008.
Issues first arose at the city school board when board members decided not to renew Superintendent James Dupree's contract and began the search for a new superintendent.
A volunteer search committee spent more than 700 hours and $28,000 reviewing resumes, conducting interviews and paying candidates to fly to Monroe to interview for the superintendent post.
Dupree came to the Monroe City Schools in 2004 to replace Superintendent George Cannon, who retired.
At the time, standardized testing scores were in decline while the number of school dropouts was increasing. Also, the system had less than $20,000 in cash reserves.
At the close of the 2007 academic year, test score trends and dropout rates had leveled off, and an audit of the school system's finances showed some $8 million in cash reserves.
In late 2007, officials with the Caddo Parish school system revealed Dupree was one of three finalists for the superintendent job with that system.
During the interview process for the Caddo position Dupree sought more than $200,000 in compensation, including a membership in a country club.
Caddo school officials declined to offer Dupree a contract.
Four months after agreeing not to renew Dupree's contract, the Monroe City School Board voted to hire him.
His new, three-year contract includes a $5,000 raise and more than $8,000 per year for a car allowance.
All told, Dupree's compensation package will cost the city school system $173,000 per year.
Throughout the year, the city school board also came under fire for a number of issues. Those included an effort to hire Cassandra Shelling-Green, daughter of school board member Brenda Shelling, at Wossman High School; suggestions by school board members to reign in public participation at meetings and control what board members say to the media; and concerns from the U.S. Justice Department about racial disparities at Monroe City Schools.
Other top local stories during 2008 included a pay raise flap concerning state legislators, the highest voter registration ever in Ouachita Parish, which occurred prior to the Nov. 4 general election, and the indictment of former state Sen. Charles Jones for tax evasion.
The Legislature came under fire in late 2008 when it approved a base salary increase from $16,800 to $37,500. Public backlash over the raise was rampant throughout Louisiana as many residents struggled to pay for high gasoline and food prices and meet their monthly bills.
The issue was widely reported for weeks by the media throughout the state.
Several local legislators criticized the media during a public function for reporting on the pay raise issue so extensively.
Eventually, Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed the legislative pay raise bill. Jindal originally said he would not veto the bill, though he publicly said he did not approve of it.
On Nov. 4, more than 67,000 voters went to parish polls to vote on a number of measures, including the election of president of the United States. Barack Hussein Obama, a Democrat, was elected, becoming the first African-American president.
Registrar of Voters Christa Medaries said the increase in parish voters was due mainly to the interest in the presidential election.
Charles Jones, a former state senator accused of tax evasion, will get his day in federal court in Monroe this spring.
U.S. District Court Judge Robbie James will preside over the government's case against Jones, a Monroe attorney, beginning March 19, 2009.
A federal grand jury handed down a three-count indictment in January. The indictment said Jones filed false tax returns and evaded paying income taxes, dating to 1995. Federal prosecutors also contend that Jones intentionally understated his income in 1999 and 2000 to avoid paying federal income taxes.
Prosecutors allege Jones used a complex series of banking transactions to mask more than $750,000 in income over an eight-year period stretching from 1995 to 2003.