GULFPORT -- The Mississippi Development Authority has failed to adequately document the number of jobs at the port, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says, meaning the federal government can apply unspecified sanctions unless reporting is brought into compliance with federal regulations.
In an interview with the Sun Herald, MDA Executive Director Brent Christensen said Friday afternoon, "I think, ultimately, if we'd had the proper information-gathering mechanism in place, we wouldn't be at the point we're at today."
HUD, which is spending $580 million in Katrina relief money for port restoration and expansion, said MDA and the port must improve documentation of jobs that result from the federal investment. HUD also outlined "corrective action" MDA and the Port of Gulfport must take, including:
n Submit within 60 days plans to document jobs the project will create.
n Meet quarterly with senior HUD staff to discuss job-creation progress, including new tenant leases and employee recruitment
and training efforts.
n Submit to HUD agreements with each tenant that show jobs created and retained, and corrective action the state intends to impose if job creation requirements and time frames are not met.
HUD said it is confident the port can still achieve its federal mandate to create 1,300 jobs, with 51 percent going to low- to moderate-income residents.
However, HUD said, documenting current, retained jobs will be crucial to that effort. HUD pointed out the port has submitted conflicting numbers for retained jobs. It said in 2007 it would retain 1,286 jobs. The state reduced the number several times, the report noted, most recently to 814. During an August monitoring review, HUD was able to verify only 128 of the 141 low- to moderate-income jobs the port claims as part of the total number of retained jobs.
Even so, HUD said the "job retention component" of the project is "effectively completed," but MDA is still expected, at a minimum, to document the 814 jobs "to the greatest extent possible."
Port Executive Director Jonathan Daniels said he has hired a new compliance director, Melanie Arsenault, to start work in March. Daniels himself came onboard in June. He is confident, he said, Arsenault has the experience and ability to meet HUD requirements on job reporting and enhance workforce development for future jobs. Daniels and Arsenault worked together in Maine, he said. She has both public and private job experience in workforce development.
Daniels also said he expects a big announcement about port business, but he said he could not elaborate before a proposal is brought Tuesday to the port's governing board.
The nonprofit Steps Coalition of community groups has been monitoring the port project since its inception. The group is concerned about the project paying off with jobs, especially because expansion plans encroach on low-income communities with an expanded rail and road for port use.
"It is time for Governor (Phil) Bryant to reevaluate the leadership team at MDA responsible for putting a half billion-dollar public infrastructure investment at risk," Steps Executive Director Roberta Avila said in a news release.
Ruth Story, a member of the Port Campaign Coalition, which includes Steps, added: "This mismanagement of federal block grant dollars is escalating. And the promises of well-paying construction jobs for our people seem to be moving further out of reach. We have got to put reliable people in charge before we spend on more dollar on this massive project."
A separate division of HUD, the fair housing office, has cited MDA for past failures to meet requirements regarding construction jobs for low-income residents and qualified businesses. Christensen said a trip to Washington is planned to meet with fair housing officials.