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Coast leaders must spend money quickly

Deadline given for recovery

It’s time to finish the job. That’s the imperative Gov. Haley Barbour gave to Coast business and elected leaders regarding Hurricane Katrina recovery. The governor spoke plainly to the group of approximately 200 people at a meeting of the Gulf Coast Business Council in Gulfport. He made it clear he will not risk the state losing the pool of unused federal recovery money and that projects must begin by Sept. 1.

Referring to the large amount of recovery money still not spent, Barbour called the Katrina recovery the Gulf Coast Stimulus. Nearly $2.8 billion remains in major Katrina rebuilding programs that include FEMA public assistance and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds for community revitalization, regional water/wastewater infrastructure, the State Port at Gulfport and Hancock County long-term recovery. Those funds remain unspent as the state expects to receive $2.5 to $3 billion from the recently enacted federal stimulus package.

In his introduction of the governor, council chairman Anthony Topazi said, “Mississippi is where it is today because of his leadership and energy which have never wavered. He’s been here for us. When the history of Katrina is written, Mississippi will be at the top and will look good.”

Barbour began his presentation by saying that it honors him to hear the many compliments the state receives for the way its people reacted and carried on after the country’s worst ever natural disaster.

“People literally all over the world noticed how well our people did,” he said. “I am proud of the progress we’ve made, but we all know we’ve got to step it up a notch. Let’s be honest about what we’ve got to do.”

He noted that housing continues to be a crucial issue; not availability but affordability. “There are thousands of families who can not afford the housing that’s available,” he said. “There were people living in family homes or homes that were paid for at essentially zero cost or living in rental property with a tiny cost.”

The governor recently met with the director of Housing and Urban Development in Washington to request that agency to convert some of the state’s recovery funds into housing vouchers. The coastal counties still have approximately 3,500 FEMA trailers and 2,300 Mississippi Cottages in use.

“The biggest thing to talk about today is the economy,” he said. “I wouldn’t have voted for the stimulus package, but that’s beside the point. We will receive the stimulus funds. That’s in addition to the $2.5 billion Katrina has put in our hands already making it a stimulus package for the Gulf Coast alone.”

According to estimates of state Institutions of Higher Learning economists, the remaining Katrina projects in the CDBG community revitalization, regional water/wastewater infrastructure and rebuilding of public buildings programs will create more than 18,000 jobs on the Coast.

“When things were done to rebuild after Katrina, we weren’t thinking about stimulus,” Barbour said. “Now we’re in a deep recession and we need those jobs and the spending that will come with them.”

He pointed out that state revenues are expected to have a shortfall of $200 to $245 million this year, mostly in the latter part of the year.

The governor used pie charts to illustrate the percentages of recovery funds spent to date. Only 57 percent of the $2.8-billion FEMA public assistance funds have been spent in the three coastal counties. A mere seven percent of CDBG community revitalization funds have been utilized. Of funds allocated for CDBG regional water/wastewater infrastructure, eight percent has been spent.

“Cities and counties not beginning construction of CDBG community revitalization projects by Sept. 1 will be considered for immediate de-obligation so funds can be assigned to other projects that are either under construction or can begin construction quickly,” he said.

The inability of FEMA and local governments to agree on issues and guidelines has hampered the use of funds. In his meeting with the HUD secretary, Barbour stressed the need for compromise. Toward that end, the governor is asking that all decisions regarding project specifics be made by June 30. He urged local government leaders to wave a red flag to get assistance from his office.

“We need dirt turned. I take these deadlines seriously,” he said. “When the American taxpayers are spending through the nose for a stimulus package, we need to do our part and spend the stimulus funds we already have.”

He explained that the funds the state expects from the federal stimulus package won’t go far in light of state revenue shortfalls. “That’s why it’s so important to get these projects started,” he added. “It will help down here and will help the towns north of here.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at lynn@lynnsdesk.com.

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