Cities feel the pressure to get CDBG projects started

By Brad Kessie - bio | email

PASS CHRISTIAN, MS (WLOX) - The clock is ticking on cities and counties that haven't completed their community development block grant projects.  Governor Barbour says start those hurricane recovery projects by September, or be prepared to lose the grant money.

But, getting HUD, FEMA, insurance companies and local engineers to all agree on a rebuilding plan is a lot more difficult than the governor may realize.  That's especially true in smaller towns like Pass Christian that don't have the manpower to constantly pore over the paperwork it takes to get a CDBG project approved.

A new library is one of three Pass Christian projects being funded by a community development block grant.  Mayor Chipper McDermott is excited about that development because it shows his city is on the road to recovery.

"Whatever it takes, we'll do it.  We're ready to go," he said.

In front of the library is supposed to be the new Pass Christian City Hall.  But it just got tangled up in some bureaucratic red tape.  Consequently, the city hall construction schedule is now on hold.

"I'd like to have done it yesterday.  But these things are not easy," bemoaned the mayor.

Cities have so many applications to fill out.  And they aren't always processed in a timely manner.  Those kinds of delays anger city and county leaders all over south Mississippi, because they stymie Katrina recovery efforts.  They told that to Governor Barbour during a lunch meeting last Friday.

"We all talked about it," said McDermott, remembering the conversations from that meeting.  "We all want to get these things going."

A few days before that lunch, Gov. Barbour issued what amounted to an ultimatum.  He said all hurricane inducted CDBG projects needed to come out of the ground by September 1, 2009.  That challenge has elected leaders scrambling to find the most expedient ways to cut through the rebuilding bureaucracy.

"You're talking about small towns here that are like Mayberry towns that are now dealing with budgets that are five to ten times what they normally are.  Doing procedures that you've never done before," McDermott said.  "This is tough. This is as tough as you can be."

It's tough.  But, neighboring Mayor Billy Skellie says it's not impossible.  With the help of CDBG money, Long Beach has its new city hall already under construction.  And improvements to adjacent Jeff Davis Avenue have also started.

The CDBG hang up in this city is getting authorization for a $1.6 million town green.

"I feel confident that the school board and the city are going to get all this straight.  And we'll have a great project there, in time and meet his deadline," Mayor Skellie said.

Both Pass Christian and Long Beach received $15 million in CDBG money to help with their rebuilding projects.

The state still has about a billion dollars in unspent relief money.  Governor Barbour fears Mississippi will lose that money, and 18,000 new job opportunities, if the CDBG projects aren't built in the next six months.

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