GULFPORT -- Since it was formed in 1994, the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources has grown to an agency with more than 140 paid employees, other contract workers and an annual state funding appropriation of about $19 million, plus many times that in federal money and grants.
State Sen. Tommy Gollott, R-Biloxi, created DMR when he chaired the Senate Marine Resources Committee. Lawmakers wanted the agency here on the Coast because most of the work it now does was being handled from Jackson by state wildlife officials. Gollott, who also wrote the legislation that legalized dockside casinos in the early 1990s, said there was a host of new Tidelands money available from casino leases to fund Coast projects then. It made sense to have an agency on the Coast controlling that money.
DMR takes the lead on spending hundreds of millions in federal money for Coast preservation and restoration projects. It has law enforcement jurisdiction over coastal waterways. The agency has also handled distribution of millions of dollars from the BP oil spill. DMR, which is often the focus of public criticism, must balance what's best for the seafood and fishing industries with what's best for the environment.
"That's a tough agency to run," Gollott said.
It was recently reported the State Auditor's Office was investigating the DMR for its spending habits, and auditors in October collected records at the DMR offices in Biloxi. The news of the state investigation came on the heels of a U.S. Interior Department Inspector General review, which questions millions of dollars in land appraisals and purchases.
In 2000, E. Glade Woods informed officials he was resigning and would serve until later that year. He suffered a heart attack before he left the job.
"It's a real pressure job," Gollott said.
During Woods' tenure, the staff increased fourfold. They took on additional responsibilities in 1999 when marine law enforcement duties were transferred from the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. The command of those 36 officers was moved from Jackson to the DMR's offices in the Bolton Building on Biloxi's Back Bay. The budget increased from $3.2 million to $7.9 million between 1994 and 2000.
Walker steps in
Woods was replaced by former U.S. Navy pilot Glen H. Carpenter, who, like Woods, had also been a higher-up at Stennis Space Center, but Carpenter held the DMR post for only 16 months before he resigned. In 2002, then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove appointed Bill Walker to become DMR's third leader.
Musgrove, drawing on his inner environmentalist, quoted an old saying when announcing the appointment: "We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children."
Walker came to DMR from the Environmental Protection Agency, where he had been for six years, taking a pay cut to come back to Mississippi from Washington, where he was a congressional fellow. His salary was $70,000 then. Walker said when he was hired he was a "team oriented" and optimistic person. He's also said he planned to stress communication and consensus building at DMR.
Big budgets, big opposition
Today, Walker, who makes $124,000 annually, oversees a well-funded agency. For example, in 2011, DMR got about $18 million in state funding, but received some $111 million on top of that, which includes federal money and grants. For 2012's budget, the DMR received a $19 million appropriation, plus about $64 million in other funds.
Out of its state money, DMR gets a portion of gasoline, oil and petroleum tax collections, which resulted in $3 million for the agency under the budget the Legislature set for 2013. It gets other money, too, including Tidelands money, which comes from the proceeds of leases on waterfront areas of the Coast. For its 2013 budget, DMR gets some $9.8 million in Tidelands funds, intended to fund coastal improvement projects.
BP brings spotlight
Before the recent investigation, Walker was front and center throughout much of the 2010 BP oil disaster. He famously remarked in a meeting with the Sun Herald that year he didn't see as much danger in the petroleum that washing ashore as was being portrayed in news reports. He joked the substances might even be edible.
"I haven't tasted it, but I might one day," he said.
DMR was given control over $25 million from BP money to fund grants to local governments to help with their efforts to prepare for the oil spill. The municipalities quickly gobbled up the money.
City and county officials bought boats, pickup trucks, backhoes, ATVs, protective suits, and boom material, submerged fencing and other items to try to stave off the oil. The agency worked closely with BP and the Coast Guard on the response to the disaster.
Fishermen and environmentalists sharply criticized Walker in weeks and months after the disaster because they felt he and other state leaders were too cozy with BP, and weren't representing their interests. Walker, then-Gov. Haley Barbour and others took the stance that the disaster was bad, but its long-term effects on the environment were being blown out of proportion.
Gollott said overall, though, he's impressed with the job Walker has done to this point.
"Each director has done a little bit better than the one before," Gollott said. "I think Walker, with all his knowledge, has done a pretty good job. Up until now, with what I have been reading the paper, I wasn't aware of any of that was going on. But it'll all come out."