Harrison County

Power bills for poor being paid during agency transition

ANITA LEE/SUN HERALD 
 Willie Mae Clark of Gulfport was worried about her power being shut off because funding has been pulled from the agency helping her, Gulf Coast Community Action Agency. But Clark called Mississippi Power on Tuesday and found out the bill has been paid.
ANITA LEE/SUN HERALD Willie Mae Clark of Gulfport was worried about her power being shut off because funding has been pulled from the agency helping her, Gulf Coast Community Action Agency. But Clark called Mississippi Power on Tuesday and found out the bill has been paid.

The Mississippi Department of Human Services pulled funding from the Gulf Coast Community Action Agency because, by Dec. 17, it had spent only 63 percent of the money it received this year to help poor people pay energy bills.

Tina Ruffin, director of the DHS Community Services Division, said GCCAA received $1,368,722 for 2015 to help with energy expenses, including power bills, but still had a balance of $508,922 on Dec. 17.

DHS informed the Gulfport agency serving five South Mississippi counties that it would lose federal funding for the program on Dec. 31.

GCCAA's board decided to voluntarily give up a second program designed to help low-income residents achieve self-sufficiency through education, job training and housing. Ruffin said DHS was notified of the board's decision on Dec. 29.

For 2015, GCCAA received $654,274 in federal funds for the self-sufficiency program, but had a balance of $213,474 on Dec. 17.

Also in mid-December, the federal government removed GCCAA's funding for Head Start in Harrison County, which amounted to about $9 million a year, and placed the early childhood-education program under interim management.

Ruffin said DHS has other agencies in mind to pick up the energy and self-sufficiency programs by Feb. 1. She said she did not want to name the agencies because they could be inundated with telephone calls before they are set up to handle the programs. The public will be notified, she said, as soon as new providers are in place.

DHS is working with GCCAA to close out its programs and GCCAA will pay all pledges made through Dec. 31, Ruffin said.

When they learned last week GCCAA was losing its funding, clients worried their power bills would go unpaid. Two of those clients from Gulfport checked with Mississippi Power on Tuesday and told the Sun Herald their bills were paid.

"I'm very much relieved," said one of the women, Willie Mae Clark, whose $131.35 power bill for November was paid Monday.

Gulfport attorney Dean Holleman, who is advising GCCAA, told the newspaper that the board approved utility payments Thursday, issuing about a dozen checks.

With its federal funding gone, the nonprofit GCCAA is looking at closing out operations after 46 years, Holleman said.

Allegations of child abuse plagued the Head Start program. The Board of Directors was in turmoil, with at least four newer members recently resigning. While Head Start served only Harrison County under GCCAA, the energy and self-sufficiency programs covered Hancock, Harrison, Stone, George and Greene counties.

"It is our full intention to make sure that the citizens in the Gulf Coast area are served with these programs as soon as possible," Ruffin said. "We are working diligently to ensure that the process is done quickly."

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