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

Monday, October 01, 2007

Plan to give funds to port ‘unconscionable’

By Dwayne Bremer
Sep 28, 2007

A plan by the Mississippi Development Authority to use $600 million from disaster relief accounts to help double the size of the Port of Gulfport has drawn the ire of several local, state, and civic leaders this week.

The Development Authority--a state run department-- is in charge of the $3.3 billion Mississippi Home Owners Grant Program.

The plan to redirect $600 million from the Home Owners Grant Program to the Port of Gulfport came to light at budget hearings in Jackson earlier this week.

The house and senate will not vote on the budget until January; however, this week was the end of the public comment period. Lawmakers including State Rep. Dianne Peranich of DeLisle have asked for an extension of the public comment period. The deadline was Monday, but, MDA Executive Director Gary Swoope said he would consider the request for the extension.

"I totally disagree with the redirection of the money until we have more time to look at it," Peranich said earlier this week. "I would think the homeowners money, should be for homeowners. They (MDA) have CDBG money for other projects."

The plan calls for the MDA to move $600 million from the Homeowners Grant Program to fuel a port expansion project that could potentially create thousands of jobs and create an economic boom along the Gulf Coast.

Officials at Gov. Haley Barbour's office said Thursday the diversion of funds is part of the "master plan" of the CDBG grants the state lobbied for after Hurricane Katrina, and it will not affect the individual assistance the program was designed for.

"There is plenty of money there for what it (home owners grant program) was intended for," Pete Smith of the governor's office said Thursday.

Officials at MDA said Friday money has been earmarked for the port ever since Nov. 2005.

"We are not taking money out of the hands of homeowners who received flood surge damage," Donna Sanford, director of MDA's disater recovery division said. "This is nothing new."

She said the program still has enough money to provide 30,000 eligible applicants an average grant of $70,000 each.

Stanford said the total amount of CBDG funds the state has received is about $5.5 billion. Of that $3.3 billion was designated for the housing program. Originally, the state used FEMA numbers to estimate that about 35,000 households would be eligible for grants. Once the applicants began coming in, she said, it became apparent that the number of applicants would be much lower. MDA was able to modify eligibility requirements as well as give additional money to applicants, she said.

"Local leaders questioned why the project is being presented now and what exactly is in the "master plan."

Some legislators said they have been frustrated with not being in the loop about the state's spending.

When the funding was secured in early 2006, the state house of representatives passed an oversight bill which would have allowed for legislative oversight of the CDBG funds. The state senate later killed the bill when it voted on it and thus the state has not shared information with the house and senate about the spending of the CDBG funds, officials said.

The "master plan" which Barbour and the state delegation presented to Congress has not been made public either, which has caused some concern.

"This is the first I have heard about it," state Rep. J. P. Compretta said Thursday. "I thought the money was intended for individuals. This may be contrary to Congress' intent."

Peranich, who serves on the budget committee, said she only heard of it a couple days before budget talks began. She said she wants to know what the port plans to do with the money and what is in the master plan.

"We don't know what is going on," she said. "We are not saying we're against the Port of Gulfport, but what are they going to do with the money? It may be 2012 before they create any jobs."

A request to the governor's office for a copy of the "master plan" was not provided by press time Friday.

Don Allee, the Executive Director of the Port of Gulfport said Friday that the port expansion plan has been in place since 2003, and the growth necessary to accommodate today's needs as well as future needs has increased since Hurricane Katrina. He said if the port gets the funding it will have a tremendous impact on the region.

"It's all about the people," Allee said. "With the type of infrastructure and jobs, it's a priority."

Allee said within 10 years the port expansion plan could generate as many as 2,000 more well paying jobs. Currently, the average salary for some of the port's lowest paid employees is between $40,000 and $50,000 per year.

Compretta said spending what is left over from the program on economic development might not be a bad thing in the long run, but the focus now should be on getting current applicants their money.

Compretta said his office receives about five calls a day from residents who still have not received their grant checks. He said in some cases, properties are being foreclosed on because of the slow process.

"Once the needs of the citizens are satisfied, then we can look at what is left over, not now," he said. "They are putting the cart before the horse."

Board of Supervisors President Rocky Pullman said Thursday the county has been lobbying the state for assistance for months.

"We have lobbied as hard as we can for help with the jail, EOC, and infrastructure improvements," he said.

Smith said most public assistance generally goes through federal programs and the Stafford Act.

Unfortunately for Hancock County and the cities of Bay St. Louis and Waveland, the Stafford Act has been one of the biggest hindrances in rebuilding local infrastructure. Many public projects have either not been approved or not fully-funded because of FEMA's duty to comply with the often critized Stafford Act.

In the case of the jail, FEMA will not fund the county for rebuilding a new jail because of disagreements about damage. The Bay-Waveland School Board has also had a nightmare with historical and elevation challenges in rebuilding its devastated schools.

Pullman said a little more help from the state would go a long way.

Compretta agreed.

"The needs of the county and cities should be looked at," he said.

A letter from the Steps Coalition--which represents more than 25 Gulf Coast Clergymen--urged MDA to use some of the money for low income housing.

"Given the housing crisis on the Gulf Coast, the diversion of funding from housing our community members in greatest need, including many elderly and disabled residents, to expanding the Port of Gulfport is unconscionable," the letter said.

"The Port of Gulfport is fortunately well on the road to recovery, and by its own data had by 2006 received 66 percent of the cargo it handled in 2005. In contrast, our 17,000 displaced Mississippi households in FEMA trailers are not yet 1percent of the way towards a permanent recovery. The Port of Gulfport sustained $50 million in damages; therefore we do not understand why the MDA is planning to provide twelve times the funding the Port of Gulfport originally requested when so many Mississippians are without housing. It is with this understanding that we have come together to ask that the Governor's Office desist in its plans to shift $600 million dollars from money earlier promised for housing reconstruction to a new project to expand the Port of Gulfport. We believe the diversion of funds from housing is a great injustice that will cause serious hardship for many of our brothers and sisters, including the poorest members of our community, who are still struggling to rebuild their homes and lives shattered in the storm.

Sanford said MDA is only trying to fulfill the original plan. She said local governments are receiving tremendous consideration and she pointed to nearly $300 million in CDBG funds which have been allocated for infrastructure.

She said the comment period was intended so that people and organizations could suggest ways of using the remainder of the funds. She said 99 percent of the request have to do with providing housing and assistance for renters. She said her office has received about 1,200 comments as well as a petition signed by 750 people.
"Everyone has ideas and they are good ideas she said."

© Copyright 2007 Bay St. Louis Newspapers, Inc.

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