Hurricane Katrina

Hancock hears progress reports

BAY ST. LOUIS - Despite startling challenges ahead, these leaders seemed to have a bubbly bounce in their step Tuesday as they uncorked progress reports on everything from housing to marine resources.

The Governor's Commission for Hancock County is arguably the largest grass-roots effort in the county's history, a group of local leaders and 13 committees with similar hopes of rebuilding.

At this week's meeting it quickly became clear that many of the committees face the same dilemma: High hopes, but no money to make them happen.

"We think we have a pretty good handle on the finances of the county, Waveland and Bay St. Louis, and the bottom line is that if not for borrowed money, they wouldn't be paying their bills," said Chuck Benvenutti, an accountant who is chairman of the commission.

But borrowing money could soon end, according to Rea Montjoy, who leads the Finance Committee.

Montjoy said the local governments have reached their borrowing capacity, meaning they don't have enough backing to qualify for loans, and they are unable to match funds on grants.

Jim Gelston, a senior planner with FEMA working on a long-term recovery plan for the county, urged the local governments to continue talks of sharing services or consolidating resources to save money.

Gavin Smith, head of the Governor's Office of Recovery, has offered to help secure money to stabilize the local governments while the rebuilding continues.

Meantime, Maurice Singleton is leading the Committee on Communications, which plans to publish a weekly series in The Sea Coast Echo to update residents on the commission's progress.

"A well-informed public would be more likely to participate," Singleton said. "We want to arm them with as much information as possible."

The Committee on Agriculture and Forestry is working to revitalize inland seafood processing and marine habitats, and to spread awareness of underwater debris.

The Committee on Defense and Government Contracting is working to educate local contractors on how to bid for government rebuilding jobs.

Next month, the Housing Committee plans to open a housing recovery center, a one-stop shop that will offer information on how to get permits and what steps to take to build a new home. A design team from Mississippi State University will create blueprint drawings.

The Committee on Land Use has posted a two-year study on green space on the Chamber of Commerce's Web site, and the Education Committee has launched an all-out search for a grant writer to help prepare grants for the local school districts.

Tuesday's meeting was the first time the committees have submitted updates since the commission was formed in April, and the rebuilding picture seems to be crawling into focus.