It’s a frigid mid-January morning, and director Terri Turner-Marse has arrived early to the Northshore Food Bank.

Outside the building, 840 N. Columbia St., in the heart of old Covington, a line of cars stretches for two city blocks. The line will grow until at least 9 a.m., when the food bank opens its doors.

One by one, the cars will pull up to the food bank's warehouse and load up with groceries. For the families those cars represent, the nonprofit is their primary food provider.

Turner-Marse says a third of its clients are elderly, a third are disabled and another third are caught in the poverty cycle.

“The holidays and summer tend to be the busiest times of year for us,” Turner-Marse said. “That’s when the kids are out of school. January typically is one of the slower times of the year.”

The Northshore Food Bank is open three days a week, but even when she’s off-site, Turner-Marse is thinking of ways to help the people she serves there. These days, her thoughts are on the building at 701 N. Columbia St. as often as they are on the food bank, one block away.

That’s the location of the St. Tammany Parish Justice Center, and the food bank sits not only in the literal shadow of the big building but in its proverbial shadow, as well.

Bigger need, less money

The food bank was one of 11 nonprofits that had funding eliminated by parish government effective Jan. 1.  

The parish, required by law to operate under a balanced budget and to pay state-mandated funding of the justice system, found itself in a hole in April after voters rejected, for the second time, a millage to finance operations and maintenance of the St. Tammany Justice Center and the St. Tammany Parish Jail.

The justice center, the jail and the 11 nonprofit programs are connected, and perhaps inexorably so.

While much of the food bank's operation is funded by philanthropic businesses, civic organizations and individuals, part of the budget -- some $85,000 in 2017 -- came from parish government.

Although that is only a small part of the estimated $1.5 million the food bank spent on nutrition services last year, it’s a hole Turner-Marse must fill in 2018.

The food bank, which first opened as the Food Bank Inc. of St. Tammany in 1984, was born of the local churchgoing public’s desire to help the needy. The churches fed 40 families a week at the time, but today, the organization serves more than 5,000 people annually, Turner-Marse said.

More than 100 volunteers assist there regularly, and the physical plant includes a 6,000-square-foot food warehouse as well as a thrift store and a dental clinic, which provides care to the uninsured working poor for a fraction of the cost of private dentistry.

Redirecting the money

With taxes to support the justice center and jail failing twice, parish government found itself with millions of dollars of deficit, which forced Parish President Pat Brister to make what she called “very difficult choices.” To get the budget back into the black, a total of $778,200 in funding for groups like the Northshore Food Bank vanished.

According to the parish, $1.33 million of the public health millage, which also funds the nonprofits, is now being budgeted to provide medical services to inmates at the St. Tammany Parish Jail, which also is a stone’s throw from the food bank.

That covers three-quarters of the $1.8 million annual cost of jail medical services, with the remaining quarter of the cost being levied from Jan. 1 through March 31. 

It’s an unenviable situation for Brister, who's again asking parish voters to help finance the justice center and jail with a 10-year one-fifth-cent sales tax proposal on the March 24 ballot. 

“It’s very traumatic,” she said, looking over the chart of 11 nonprofits whose funding was cut on Jan. 1. “These aren’t just numbers and names of organizations. They represent real people who have real need for this funding. We went through a lot of heart-wrenching decision-making.

"We’ve been fortunate in St. Tammany over the years to be able to fund organizations like this to the level we have, and we really want to go back to that level.”

For Turner-Marse, learning last fall of the financial hit the food bank would take was “numbing.”

“I was in disbelief when I found out,” she said. “It was four months away from happening, and all I could think was, 'I have people to feed and people to see in our dental clinic. How are we possibly going to do this?' ”

Raising money vs. helping people

The logical choice was to crank up the fundraising machine, which Turner-Marse and other affected nonprofit leaders have done. But in a time when extra dollars have been difficult to come by for many working people, the prospect of easily replacing tens of thousands of dollars in donations is easier said than done.

And for some, such as Lynette Savoie, of St. Tammany Outreach for the Prevention of Suicide, it’s a monumental task. St. Tammany government gave her group $25,000 in 2017, which Savoie said is half of her nonprofit’s $50,000 annual budget.

“(Losing that money) is huge to us,” Savoie said. “We’re having to focus much more on fundraising than we ever would, and that’s not serving the needs of the people who are in crisis.”

The suicide outreach program served about 1,100 people in 2017, providing crisis intervention, counseling, regular support groups and suicide prevention training for volunteers. Savoie said those things will continue, but she’ll have to find additional funding to pay for training materials and the small stipend provided to social workers who lead support groups.

“We’re having to be much more ‘boots on the ground,’ ” she said. “But all of these groups (that were affected by the cutbacks), we’re cohesive. We work together, and we’re trying to help one another.”

Nick Richard, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness — St. Tammany, agreed but said his organization faces an uphill battle if it’s going to continue its work.

NAMI-St. Tammany lost $80,000 in parish funding for the operation of its group home on the parish’s Safe Haven campus near Mandeville. Another $50,000 used to help fund behavioral health court-case management services at the 22nd Judicial District also was slashed.

Richard said the money from the parish made up 25 percent of the NAMI-St. Tammany budget in 2017.

“A quarter of what we had is gone,” he said. “We consider ourselves an affluent parish, and we are to a good degree. We try hard to be the best we can, but still, we have people (dying) because of their (mental) illness. I remind myself of that every day. I remind myself of that and I think about how I’m going to fund this program.”

Richard said he’s heard the argument that during tough economic times, everyone must cut back, including nonprofits. But he contends there is no fat left to cut at NAMI-St. Tammany.

He’s also facing the increasing worry that the financially strapped state government may cut nonprofit funding, as well.

“People say, 'Tighten your belt,’ and I say, ‘Show me where.’ I don’t even know where to start. The fact is (NAMI-St. Tammany) could go away. That’s as real as it gets. We look for private money, grants. I meet with people every day, and I talk with anyone with a cent to give anywhere.”

Richard contends, and Brister agrees, that it’s much cheaper for the parish to provide some financial assistance to nonprofits and for those groups to provide services, rather than the parish shouldering the burden of services.

“We could not grow our government large enough to (provide all these services through government), and we shouldn’t,” Brister said. “We really shouldn’t be in a lot of these areas. Those are some specialties that we aren’t equipped to handle.”

That seemingly puts the ball squarely in the court of St. Tammany taxpayers who, when they approved a quarter-cent sales tax to build the jail and justice center in 1998, created a situation in which parish government could better assist local charity. But with that 20-year tax scheduled to expire at the end of March, the financial assist is on hold.

Tax would restore funding

Brister has said if the pared-back 10-year, one-fifth-cent tax is passed on March 24, she would be able to return funding to the affected nonprofits. That has the charity leaders in the perhaps awkward position of asking taxpayers to support the justice center and jail taxes next month.

Savoie said St. Tammany Outreach for the Prevention of Suicide has no official position on the proposal but she’s personally asking friends and family to vote for the tax.

“People may not be aware that when they went to the polls and voted against it, (that it would have) the consequences it has on groups like ours,” she said.

Turner-Marse echoed the sentiment. “We’re not faulting the people of St. Tammany at all. But this is hard. There is a trickle-down effect here. ... It’s too early to tell if it’s going to be an issue for us, but the trickle-down may trickle down to people here, too,” she said.

Richard said whether the tax passes or fails, he and NAMI-St. Tammany will do “whatever it takes” to keep the organization running.

Brister said she has to do the same for the parish — whether the tax passes or fails.

“We’re working very hard (on letting people know what passage or failure of the tax means),” she said.

“I know the people of St. Tammany Parish, and they’ve always been generous. ... But we know we have a job to do, and we’ll do whatever it takes. It won’t look the same if we don’t get the tax passed. Things will be different here because it’s a huge amount of money that comes into the workings of the parish.”