Congressman says post-Katrina home grant program moving too slowly

Published 1:19 am Sunday, September 24, 2006

U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor is criticizing the slow pace of Mississippi’s $3 billion Homeowner Grant Program and urging that the process be sped up to help coast residents fighting to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

“I am more frustrated than most,” Taylor, D-Miss., told The Mississippi Press newspaper. “The state’s got to get going on this.”

Taylor also was critical of state Sen. Tommy Robertson, R-Moss Point, and state Reps. Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, and Jim Simpson Jr., R-Gulfport, who stand to profit from a contract that allows them to use their professional legal services to complete homeowners’ grants.

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“The state constitution spells out that you’re a public servant and you’re not going to enrich yourself off public dollars,” Taylor said. “I encourage the state Ethics Commission to look at the constitution.”

Mississippi’s Homeowner Grant Program is part of $5 billion the federal government gave the state in January to help homeowners who were flooded during the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane. The program provides that qualified homeowners who lived outside the federally designated flood plain can receive grants of up to $150,000.

Out of 17,000 Coast homeowners who applied for grants, 75 checks have been written, Mississippi Development Authority spokesman Scott Hamilton said earlier this month.

Taylor said Congress had approved the funding before Christmas.

“Here we are, 10 months later, and people don’t have their money,” he said. “The whole idea was to do something quickly.”

He said that since July, dozens of homeowners have contacted his office asking why they had not received any money from the state.

Several residents haven’t heard anything from the state since they applied for the grants in April, he said, adding that the U.S. Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency that approved the $5 billion, is not holding up the process.

Taylor said he met with HUD representatives. “I asked them directly if they were responsible,” he said. “They said no.”

Taylor said his office sent a letter to Gov. Haley Barbour, who oversees the grant program, urging that the process be given more urgency. Barbour said last week that he also is frustrated by the pace of distributing the homeowners’ grants.

Hamilton, who was leaving the MDA this week, said the state had expected the program to be completed in July. Hamilton blamed the sluggishness on problems dealing with hundreds of insurance companies and hundreds of mortgage companies.

“We hoped for a more automated system,” Hamilton said earlier. “It’s been much more manual.”

Taylor noted that fewer applicants applied for grants than the state had expected.

Taylor said he has real concerns about three state lawmakers profiting from the contract to complete grants. Under a contract awarded in competitive bid process, Robertson and Beckett close grants for homeowners who do not have mortgages or whose mortgage companies did not choose to participate in the Homeowner Grant Program.

Robertson and Beckett, who formed their company in March with the intention of bidding on the contract, receive $250 for every grant they complete in Harrison and Jackson counties. Between 2,000 and 5,000 homeowners are expected to close grants in those counties, which means the two lawmakers could make $1.2 million.

Robertson and Beckett also hired Simpson to complete grants for homeowners in the first judicial district of Harrison County. Robertson refused to disclose how much Simpson is being paid.

Because federal money is funding the Homeowner Grant Program, the three state lawmakers said it is legal for them to make money off it, and Barbour agreed.

Taylor, however, disagreed.

“I asked HUD, ‘Will these grant checks say The United States of America, or the state of Mississippi?’” Taylor said. “They said the checks say, state of Mississippi.

“I have trouble believing a state lawmaker can be doing this and not be violating Section 109 of the state Constitution,” the congressman said. “In fairness, someone who is a judge needs to take a look at it and enforce the constitution.”