COLUMN: Port funding remains a controversial decision

JACKSON – The Sept. 21 New York Times lead editorial titled “Mississippi Failure,” was on target in criticizing the Barbour administration’s use of $5.5 billion in disaster relief Congress handed the state after Hurricane Katrina – especially its diversion of $600 million from housing for low or moderate income families to the damaged Port of Gulfport, under a pre-Katrina idea masked as creating 6,000 jobs.
What the Barbour people had in mind in grabbing the desperately-needed housing relief money is to implement an ambitious expansion plan developed by the port commission long before Katrina. Essentially it proposed creating by land-fill new building sites adjacent to the present port area to locate casinos and hotels on the state-owned land.
Barbour got an okay during the Bush administration from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to shift the post-Katrina housing relief funds for use at the port. A House committee has taken the Barbour people to task and called for restoration of the funds. Two lawsuits have also been filed against HUD to block the port project.
The Barbour-controlled Mississippi Development Authority had assured the House committee it had recovery funds for planned programs to produce 26,173 affordable housing units by 2011. Subsequently, the MDA has reduced the forecast to 7,700 units.
A report by Mississippi Housing Data Project that has largely been covered up by the state administration shows 8,276 storm-damaged houses are still not repaired. USA TODAY reporter Rick Jervis in a Sept. 25 story describing how some Coast residents whose homes were destroyed in the storm and since have lost their jobs are having to live in the woods. His story said Regional Housing Authority No. VIII that distributes public housing has a waiting list of 5,000 residents.
A Sept. 23 Clarion-Ledger editorial that took issue with the New York Times and defended the Barbour-backed diversion of $600 million from housing recovery relief to the port, bought into the administration’s claims the rebuilding of the port would provide 6,000 jobs.
“What jobs? Where are the jobs?” asked Rep. Dianne Peranich, (D-Pass Christian) adding, “they (the port) after four years haven’t even rebuilt the storm-destroyed refrigeration installation which enabled Gulfport to be a major exporter of Mississippi-produced chicken broilers.” That market has been lost to Pascagoula or other ports on the coast.
Over a year ago, this column reported that the Port of Gulfport’s fiscal statement filed with the Legislative Budget Office showed the port would recover $90 million insurance for equipment loss, plus compensation for downtime. A spokesman for the port authority told this column this week that $40 million insurance has been collected so far, and the rest is in litigation.
As far as “rebuilding” the port: the docks are back in operation and the three big pre-Katrina containerized shippers (Dole, Chiquita and Crowley) have long ago resumed operation and are providing revenue for the port.
Recently, some 65 Gulf Coast shrimpers, who for many years pre-Katrina occupied space in the commercial harbor at the port, learned to their dismay that the Port Commission had no plans to rebuild the devastated docks, threatening the shrimpers’ livelihood. They were told by Port attorney Ben Stone recently that the shrimpers didn’t fit in with the port’s “big” plans.
“These are farmers of the sea and our state port makes no provision for them?” declared Peranich. Meantime, Reilly Morse of the housing watchdog Steps Coalition said that whatever jobs could result from the Port Commission’s still-hazy expansion plan “would take at least until 2014 to get started in view of the environmental studies that would be needed.”
In any case, Morse added, “I don’t think they have in mind any vast rebuilding of the union movement (longshoremen and stevedores) in Gulfport.”

Bill Minor, a nationally honored journalist, has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at edinman@earthlink.net.

Bill Minor