Ocean Springs Could Lose Public Safety Grant

As Fire Chief Mark Hare walked through his Central Fire Station, he thought back to hurricane season.

"We direct the public to evacuate," he said.

Yet when Hurricane Ivan had its eye peeled on Mississippi last September, Ocean Springs actually moved its trucks into harm's way. Before the storm turned toward Florida, the fire chief figured being battered in a downtown parking lot would be safer for the trucks than riding out the storm at Central Fire Station.

"I feel with great certainty that this building would have come apart like those buildings did down there," he said, referring to the devastation in Gulf Shores and Pensacola.

In 1985, Hurricane Elena battered the Ocean Springs fire station's back entrance. Twenty years later, cracks in the walls and holes in the roof threaten everything pulled inside the weather worn structure.

Chief Hare and police chief Kerry Belk have a solution. For more than a year, they've urged Ocean Springs to build a $4.5 million public safety complex.

"We don't have the central location that we'd like to have so we can better serve the citizens here in Ocean Springs," Belk said.

Land has already been cleared for the project. And Chief Belk secured a 2003 grant to offset some costs. Yet the public safety complex remains in limbo. And that could cost the city the 2004 grant it received.

So far, nobody has calculated how much of a property tax increase Ocean Springs residents would pay. Chief Belk said whatever it is, it would be a small price to pay for top quality safety.

"I just think it's a necessity whose time is due," said Belk.

Chief Hare said residents should approve the complex, simply because of what his rescue teams risk.

"To give the fire personnel who are going to hunker down and protect their homes, while they evacuate, a safe place to spend a storm is very important to me," he said.

Whether it's important to citizens won't be known until Ocean Springs puts the public safety issue on referendum ballots.

Ocean Springs actually received two grants for the public safety complex. It used a 2003 grant to buy supplies and equipment that could eventually be moved into a new facility. Last year's grant is the one that hasn't been touched, and could be lost.