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Wanted: BP-funded projects that will last decades

Residents listen to comments during a meeting at Diamondhead City Hall on Thursday to hear suggestions for how to spend the $750 million BP settlement for economic damages from their 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Residents listen to comments during a meeting at Diamondhead City Hall on Thursday to hear suggestions for how to spend the $750 million BP settlement for economic damages from their 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

The crowd offered plenty of ways to spend BP economic damages money, but only one person suggested how not to spend it.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves had Gulf Coast Business Council President Ashley Edwards moderate Thursday the second of three town halls on the Coast to gather ideas about what to do with $750 million the state will receive over 15 years from BP for damage to the economy caused by the 2010 oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

A theme is starting to emerge. Government officials, business people and others suggested developing a long-range plan to set up a trust fund or revolving loan system to finance bigger projects.

One man, who identified himself only as Paul M., said he hoped those projects would not include ultra-high-speed broadband being pitched by some Coast officials and already financed by $15 million in BP money from Gov. Phil Bryant.

“Coast residents already have a choice of two residential internet providers, Cable One and AT&T,” he said. “Government should not compete with services the private sector already offers.

“It has been my experience that government struggles to provide basic services. So why do we need a new government-run system without any real way to pay for it in the future?”

Read what happened at the first town hall meeting.

Whitney Sumrall agreed, saying she’d rather see the money spent on afterschool programs that have been curtailed by state budget cuts.

“It really concerns me that officials are funding millions for the broadband fiber ring when we have services already available,” she said. “I just ask that you consider education funding, making it a priority.”

Many also would rather the money be spent on projects that would benefit tourism, education, the seafood industry and the coastal waterways.

Clay Wagner, a Hancock Bank official and Hancock County resident, pitched the idea of creating a funding mechanism for long-term projects that would still be around after the 15-year lifespan of the settlement payments.

“Y’all are a lot smarter than we are in the business community,” he said. “We’d like to see you come up with what that mechanism is, whether it’s a trust account, an endowed account (and) how it’s administered. But we would request you do something that’s much longer than 15 years.”

Hancock County Administrator Eddie Favre and Phao Vu, who spoke for the Coast’s Vietnamese fishermen, also asked about a revolving loan fund.

Attorney Gerald Blessey and Biloxi officials have been pitching a similar idea — the creation of a trust fund overseen by one trustee from each of the Coast counties. It would fund projects that are expected to pay a return to keep money in the trust for new loans.

Reeves again said that nothing was off the table.

“There are no decisions that have been made,” he said. “I would much rather get this done right rather than get it done quick. There’s going to be a lot of pressure ... on those who have a vote to do a lot of little, small individual projects because, again, that is the politically expedient thing.

“My personal view is if there’s a potential for a transformational project that meets the criteria, I’d rather ... be able to do something that 50 years from now — and hopefully I’ll still be breathing at that time — my kids at least can look and say the Mississippi Legislature actually got one right.”

Paul Hampton: 228-896-2330, @JPaulHampton

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