Harrison County

Harrison County looks into rescinding Topship tax breaks

The Port of Gulfport Inland Facility on Seaway Road in Gulfport is the site where Topship, LLC is.
The Port of Gulfport Inland Facility on Seaway Road in Gulfport is the site where Topship, LLC is. Sun Herald

The Harrison County Board of Supervisors asked the county attorney Monday to determine whether they can rescind tax breaks granted to Topship, saying they had been rushed into signing the document without proper information and under a veil of secrecy.

The Mississippi Development Authority, Mississippi Major Economic Impact Authority, Mississippi State Port Authority at Gulfport, Harrison County Development Commission, city of Gulfport and Harrison County signed a memorandum of understanding in February with Topship, a new affiliate of the global transportation company Edison Chouest Offshore.

In exchange for a $68 million investment from the company and the promise of 1,000 jobs by 2022, Topship received $36 million, state tax breaks and a 10-year property tax exemption from Harrison County that Supervisor Marlin Ladner estimated at $450,000. The city of Gulfport also approved a 10-year property tax exemption.

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The memorandum also promises Topship a county tax break in perpetuity on personal property shipped out of state.

The supervisors, like the other entities involved, signed the document Feb. 8.

But Ladner said -- and other county officials agreed -- the secrecy from the state and the company made it difficult for county officials to know what they were signing.

When they voted to approve the memorandum at a February meeting,

they didn't have the completed document in front of them.

On Monday, in response to an agenda item that would simply spread the memorandum on the minutes, Ladner said he regretted signing it in the first place.

In lengthy comments, Ladner pointed to problems with the way the county grants tax breaks generally, and with this deal in particular.

"If I had seen this (the MOU) I would not have voted for it," Ladner said. "I guarantee you it will never happen again. I don't care who is coming in ... This is bull. I've got a problem with this."

Like Topship, Gulf Ship is an affiliate of Edison Chouest, operating in the Harrison County Industrial Park off Seaway Road. Gulf Ship received county tax breaks in exchange for the promise of 800 jobs. Current and former employees of Gulf Ship, as well as Ladner, said there are only around 120 jobs with the company now. At the company's peak there were perhaps 600-650 jobs, officials said.

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The lack of job creation for the company has been blamed on falling oil prices and a sluggish economy.

"Well, why should the people of Harrison County pay for those problems?" Ladner said. "We've heard it all and the taxpayers of Harrison County are the ones getting bit by it. And all our departments that provide services to the citizens of Harrison County are getting shortchanged."

Ladner objected to the county's lack of recourse should Topship -- and other companies like it -- not hold up its end of the bargain. He also said the county often has no information about whether the promises, like jobs figures, were fulfilled.

The supervisors asked County Attorney Tim Holleman whether they could rescind or amend their portion of the memorandum.

Holleman said he would look into the matter for a future meeting.

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