Port works out agreement with feds over job data

Exports_rgbGULFPORT — Mississippi officials say they have an agreement with the federal government to show how existing jobs were preserved with federal money at the state-owned Port of Gulfport.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development ordered the state, in a letter received Sept. 11, to provide more documents about those jobs. The state agreed to preserve 1,300 jobs and create another 1,300 in exchange for $581 million to rebuild and expand the port after 2005′s Hurricane Katrina.

Under federal rules, the Community Development Block Grant money that’s funding the work is supposed to benefit low- and moderate-income communities. Unlike the new jobs, the state doesn’t have to offer more than half the old jobs to low- and moderate-income workers under a 2007 agreement. But HUD wrote that the state in 2007 promised to retain 1,286 jobs, including 141 held by lower-income workers. In the Sept. 11 letter, HUD demanded documentation of retained jobs within 30 days.

The Mississippi Development Authority replied to HUD recently saying it’s proceeding with a plan agreed to with HUD in an August meeting. MDA spokesman Jeff Rent said the HUD letter, though received in September, was written earlier. He says the August agreement supersedes it.

“At the monitoring visit HUD, MDA and the Port of Gulfport reviewed the available documentation and agreed to continue to work through their concern with documentation, and at their next monitoring visit HUD would check the progress,” Rent wrote in a Tuesday email. “This is a documentation issue and HUD, MDA and the Port of Gulfport agreed in person to work to continue to provide job documentation as data is collected.”

Rent said the next monitoring visit would be January or February.

A HUD spokesman did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

The port has faced continued criticism over whether the spending is going to reach the 2,600-job target. port director Jonathan Daniels says the agency is committed to reaching the goal by three years after the end of construction, which would be 2019 under the current schedule. He says that he’s recruiting more labor-intensive operations to the terminal instead of relying only on containerized cargo, as earlier plans called for.

But a September report by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review forecast the port wouldn’t reach a total of 1,300 new jobs until sometime in the late 2020s. MDA and port officials disputed the methodology used to reach those conclusions.

Proving the number of current jobs is also a contentious topic. The port says it now has about 1,000 workers. That number was lowered by about 150 in recent months to reflect the fact that many of the cargo-handling longshoremen at the port don’t work full-time.

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