Katrina Cuts Tidelands Collections By More Than Half

Less than half. That's perhaps the best description for the amount of tidelands money Mississippi Secretary of State Eric Clark hand delivered on Wednesday to the Department of Marine Resources. In fiscal year 2005, officials say the state took in $6 million in tidelands payments. Monday's check was for a little more than $2.3 million.

The Seafood and Maritime Museum operates the Schooner pier in Biloxi. Workers say the pier is worth every penny of the tidelands money used to build it.

"I guess there's no piers left around for people to fish off of so people are always down here," said staff member Brandon Boudreaux.

With the pier as a backdrop, Secretary of State Eric Clark held a tidelands check much smaller than he would have liked.

"The check for tidelands rent today is $2,327,000," said Secretary Clark. "That is rent that we collected through July 1 of 2005 and June 30 of 2006. It's way down, obviously, because of Katrina. Primarily the rent comes from casinos and most of them, as everybody knows, were destroyed by the storm."

DMR officials say most of the tidelands money is already spent. Each year more than a million dollars must be paid toward the purchase of Deer Island. DMR must also pay roughly $800,000 in matching funds for projects receiving federal grants.

"When all the dust settles there's probably not going to be a lot out of the $2.3 million to actually disperse," said DMR Director William Walker. "Whatever is left, we will work with our coast legislative delegation to determine which projects those funds ought to be used for."

But with each casino that gets back on line, Secretary Clark says he's becomes a little more optimistic.

"One of the really smartest things the legislature did was when they passed the bill a year ago to allow casinos to come on land," he said. "They said casinos will still have to pay an assessment to the tidelands fund."

Secretary Clark believes that's what will keep the tidelands program alive, and eventually build it back to what it was before Katrina.

Clark says the tidelands fund has taken in $60 million since it started in 1990. And that's money that, according to state law, can only be spent in Jackson, Harrison, and Hancock counties.