Some local govts on coast receiving post-Katrina state grants

Published 4:58 pm Friday, September 15, 2006

Rocky Pullman, president of the Hancock County Board of Supervisors, says he has a solid promise to all the taxpayers of Mississippi.

“The rest of this state has seen fit to come to our aid,” Pullman said in a phone interview Thursday. “For us not to be good stewards of this money and show that we’re willing to operate within our own budget — that wouldn’t be right. I just think we need to spend this money wisely.”

The money he’s talking about is a $3 million grant that Hancock County is receiving under a program legislators approved, at Gov. Haley Barbour’s request, during a recent special session.

Barbour and other members of the state Bond Commission met Thursday in Jackson to handle final details of the complicated plan that created state grants for local governments.

The money is going to areas where the tax base was severely eroded when Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005. To qualify, a city or county must have lost at least 25 percent of its tax collections since the storm.

Grant money is to be wired to Hancock County and to five cities on Friday, the state treasurer’s office said.

The cities of Bay St. Louis, Waveland, Long Beach and Moss Point are receiving the maximum grant of $3 million, Barbour said.

He said the city of Pass Christian is receiving almost $2.5 million, which is about what it has lost in tax collections since Katrina.

Some coast cities have seen significant increases in their tax collections since Katrina, in part because of an increase in the sales of appliances, cars and other durable goods. For example, state Tax Commission records show Gulfport received nearly $2.4 million in sales tax collections in July 2006, up from about $1.6 million in July 2005.

Bay St. Louis Mayor Eddie Favre lobbied for the grant program during the August special session, saying his city has had to leave some services undone — grass cutting, for example, and pothole filling.

Tax Commission records show Bay St. Louis received $105,044 in sales tax collections in July 2006, down from $150,165 a year earlier.

Some governments have seen a significant drop in their property tax collections.

Pullman said Hancock County has lost several public employees since Katrina. He said some road workers left for higher paying jobs clearing debris for private contractors, while others have moved out of the hurricane zone.

Because some workers left voluntarily, Hancock County has not had to lay off any of its public employees, Pullman said, but those still on the job are carrying heavier workloads.

“There is a heck of a debate over pay raises and stuff. I don’t see us using this money to increase anybody’s salary,” Pullman said.

He said many other counties in the state have helped Hancock County. Immediately after the storm, they sent mattresses, water and other relief supplies. More recently, the two neighboring coast counties — Harrison and Jackson — have helped by making road signs.

Local governments from other parts of the country have helped by donating fire trucks, law enforcement vehicles and heavy equipment.