What Gulf Coast Congressman Gene Taylor wanted the Easter Bunny to bring him.
South Mississippi Living 4/07

Monday, October 22, 2007

Barbour's agenda on Gulf Coast drawing fire

By Ellen Ann Fentress
Special to The Clarion-Ledger

Post-Katrina, Gov. Haley Barbour has kept his Teflon aura, certainly longer than George Bush managed to do post-9-11.

Yet Barbour's agenda is gathering its critics, too. Several legislators complain Barbour's administration isn't forthcoming on specifics of spending the $5.5 billion in aid appropriated by Congress. Also frustrated are Coast community advocates who keep butting up against the reality that the state's recovery is being engineered by an astute politician with more affinity for the well-to-do than those at the bottom.

Barbour chapped both groups recently by proposing to move $600 million in federal relief funds to the state port at Gulfport from its current purpose for housing efforts. The money is part of the $5.5 billion in Community Development Block Grants, the vehicle Congress used to channel hurricane aid to Mississippi.

In defense, Barbour says that the $600 million was intended for the port all along, offering a general breakout for the $5.5 billion, port included. The initial thought was to seek $500 million from the Department of Transportation and $100 million from the Corps of Engineers, he wrote in a letter to House Speaker Billy McCoy. "Congress decided to lump most of our various requests into one pool of money from one department, Community Development Block Grant," the letter said.


That is subject to dispute. After Congress acted in December 2005, port repair money was still considered up in the air in July 2006. A front-page Clarion-Ledger story on July 16, 2006, was headlined "Miss. still without funds to fix port." In the article by Ana Radelat of the paper's Washington bureau, port authority director Don Allee acknowledged he was unsure how much the port would get. That report indicated port money was no done deal.

Even now, the Mississippi Development Authority Web site labels the port proposal as an amendment "redirecting $600 million of the $2.15 billion allocated for Phase I of the Homeowner Assistance Grant Program to the Port of Gulfport Restoration."

"There is no question that that money was appropriated for housing," said Rep. Cecil Brown, of the Legislative Budget Committee. He agrees the port needs funds, but complains neither Barbour nor the port authority offers specifics on spending the $600 million.

During the 2007 session, some House Democrats pushed Barbour for more transparency on doling out the funds. The House passed a bill, which died in the Senate, calling for a legislative advisory committee on recovery spending.

Neighborhood activists - including the Mississippi Center for Justice and the NAACP - have complained that recovery a la Barbour favors the well-to-do over the less fortunate. Phase I of the Homeowners Assistance Grants, by definition, targeted homeowners, and insured ones to boot. Phase II was for homeowners as well. Owner-occupied housing is coming back faster than rentals-perhaps 40 to 1, according to construction permits - and more expensive homes faster than modest ones, found a report last month by the non-profit Rand Corporation. Further, stalled recovery in the rental market has driven rent prices up by 20 percent.


The findings came out, ironically, as Barbour's critics complained about rerouting the housing money. Rand stated affordable housing "remains limited - a factor that has, no doubt, slowed the overall pace of economic recovery along the U.S. Gulf Coast."

Rep. Diane Peranich agrees the state port is important to the Coast's return. "But you won't find anybody say it's at the expense of the homeowners," says Peranich, who moved back into her Delisle home only a few weeks ago after two years in a trailer. Peranich's mother remains in a trailer.

Barbour's letter noted the plan, under discussion, to transfer the present shipping container area inland, would make the port safer in future hurricanes. He did not mention that moving the containers inland would also help clear out a 45-acre tract of the port property, a prospect that has drawn the interest of condo and casino developers.

Meanwhile, an estimated 17,000 households, perhaps 50,000 people, remain in FEMA trailers.

Wouldn't it be nice if when Coast residents hear the phrase "trickle down," it refers to what their new roofs keep out when it rains? "Trickle down" shouldn't be the architecture of the recovery.

Ellen Ann Fentress is a regular contributing columnist to The Clarion-Ledger.

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