BILOXI -- The Mississippi Center for Justice is keeping tabs on jobs created with almost $1 billion the federal government granted after Hurricane Katrina, but it's hard to tell just how successful job creation has been because the Mississippi Development Authority stops tracking the jobs once quotas are met and the projects are closed out.
Ryan Ezelle, a Mississippi native and second-year law student from the University of Virginia, came up with some interesting statistics on Katrina job retention and creation after only 1 ½ days of research during a short internship at MCJ:
-- Of the 69 projects undertaken to create jobs after Katrina, only 42 percent are in the three Coast counties.
-- Taxpayers have so far spent about $81,658 per job for the 7,394 jobs created or retained, although the cost would be higher if MDA reported how many jobs failed to pan out in the long-term.
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-- When all the projects are finished and closed out, the total jobs goal of 9,678 amounts to $97,085 per job -- again assuming all those jobs have been retained.
-- If the biggest economic development project by far -- the state port at Gulfport -- is removed from the equation, the cost per job when all the federal money is spent would be $49,371 per job.
-- Looking at the port jobs in isolation, the cost per job for 2,114 jobs created and retained would be $267,809.
Reilly Morse, president of the MCJ, points out that the total goal for state port jobs is only 56 more jobs than the port had before the hurricane hit.
Ezelle's research delved into all 69 state projects, showing actual job goals and results. If Ezelle could complete his research in such a short time, Morse wonders why MDA has not updated its job numbers for the Katrina projects to get a realistic look at how they worked out in the long-term.
"MDA could be tell us a lot more than they're telling us," Morse said. "If the news was good, they ought to be boasting and we'd be happy."
MDA says it has no plans to update job numbers for projects that have been closed out.
"Federal guidelines do not require monitoring beyond the closeout of CDBG projects for economic development," MDA spokesman Jeff Rent said in response to questions the agency asked the Sun Herald to submit in writing.
"There are no current plans to go back and look at long-term job creation and retention."
The state's Katrina grant money came from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which sets a limit of $50,000 as the cost per job for economic development grants. The limit was waived for the Katrina funding because it was a natural disaster.
In a few cases, Ezelle was able to see that job-creation goals had not been met because the projects were still open, meaning the jobs were still being tracked. One example is Handy Hardware in Lauderdale County. The county spent $3.5 million in Katrina recovery money to improve a site for a Handy Hardware warehouse in exchange for 175 jobs. The company filed for bankruptcy in January 2013, the Associate Press reported.
Another example is Gulf Ship in Gulfport, which MDA says reached its goal of 800 jobs in 2011 in exchange for a $12 million grant. Today, Gulf Ship employs around 110, according to several current or former workers.
"MDA and the port have not always been reliable with job numbers," Morse said, "and they have inflated those numbers at times. We deserve better than that. We are all owed an explanation."