Feds claims MDA has documented only handful of port workers

GULFPORT — The federal government says the Mississippi Development Authority has documented only 50 of the 1,286 direct, full-time jobs it claims at the state port, and insists MDA provide records to show all the jobs exist.

The Sun Herald obtained a copy of a letter sent April 22 to the MDA from Stanley Gimont, director of block grant compliance in community development and planning for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

MDA must supply documentation on the jobs by early June, an enclosed report says. If the jobs are not documented, the report warns, the state could face repayment of Community Development Block Grant money HUD redirected from post-Hurricane Katrina housing assistance to economic development at the port.

Port workers and community advocates monitoring the project have long questioned the number of jobs the port claims now, and the 1,200 jobs it promises to create with the $580 million in federal funding. The project requires 51 percent of port jobs go to low- to moderate-income residents.

The port is spending the money on restoration, expansion and upgrades that will not be completed until 2017.

Daron Wilson, director of MDA’s disaster-recovery division, said port jobs in place before expansion, called “retained” jobs, were never meant to be counted as part of MDA’s compliance with HUD regulations.

“This project is about job creation,” Wilson said. “The only reason that we track job retention is so that we know how to measure job creation. We’ve got to have a starting place to say, ‘This is how many jobs we know were still here’ so that we can count every job going forward from that point as a job created.

“So, we’re going to challenge this report with respect to that… Their assertion that we have an issue here is related to their assumption that we’re trying to document job retention.”

HUD’s assumption is based on a 2007 plan submitted by MDA, as administrator of the federal grant money, for port expansion. It says: “All jobs created or retained and those that are made available to low- to moderate-income workers will be documented and reported. These efforts will provide relief and long-term recovery to the disaster area and are consistent with the CDBG program’s primary purpose.”

HUD has reminded MDA of its duty to track and document jobs. Community advocates who monitor port expansion have been frustrated by the job numbers the port claims.

For example, members of the International Longshoremen’s Association say the port employs only about 60 to 110 full-time workers to load and unload cargo, even though the port claims 388 ILA jobs.

Reilly Morse, an attorney with the Mississippi Center for Justice who represents the Steps Coalition of community organizations, said the HUD report confirms what Steps and community leaders have been saying all along.

Morse called the lack of documentation “unacceptable.” He said, “That’s putting the port at risk of losing the money if it can’t show a better performance.”

MDA’s Wilson noted the report, from HUD’s Office of Community Planning and Development, says the port “has improved its citizen participation and public outreach regarding the progress of the port’s restoration and job opportunities.”

In a separate report this month, HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity cites MDA’s lack of “due diligence” in ensuring the port, its contractors and subcontractors are meeting low- to moderate-income job requirements during construction.

The report says MDA has failed to dedicate full-time coordinators to monitor the requirements or set up a central office for record-keeping on outreach, hiring, training and contracting. The report cites MDA for noncompliance in a number of areas, and demands corrective action.

 

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