FEMA letter raises questions over fate of old Gulfport library

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - A letter from FEMA and MEMA throws a new kink into the ongoing debate over the fate of the old downtown Gulfport Library. The agencies told the Harrison County Board of Supervisors it may have to reimburse FEMA more than $2.5 million, if terms of an agreement over the library property aren't met.

When Katrina gutted the old library in downtown Gulfport, FEMA spent more than $2.5 million to build two new libraries: One in downtown and the other in Orange Grove.

Harrison County owns the old library and the city of Gulfport wants the building. But Harrison County can't agree to turn over the property until the two new libraries, along with other FEMA-funded projects, are all completed and closed out.

"We want to save the building, and we want to do it without having to reimburse FEMA," said Gulfport Mayor George Schloegel.

Noting it could take years for all of the county's post-Katrina projects to end, the city is proposing leasing the old library building.

Harrison County Supervisor Marlin Ladner said based on a letter from FEMA, the county may have to reimburse FEMA the $2.5 million dollars. Ladner said according to a 2007 Memorandum of Understanding with FEMA, the county cannot use federal funds for new libraries, then turn around and make money by leasing the old library building.

"They [FEMA and MEMA] have indicated in these letters that they're not going to approve the proposal that the city of Gulfport has made with the board of supervisors. And if we accept your proposal, they're going to de-obligate those funds," Ladner told the mayor during Monday's board meeting. "The agreement would be then we would go to you and say, 'OK, y'all start paying us back the de-obligated funds, because I don't think this board is prepared to eat $2.5 - $3 million.'"

Gulfport Mayor George Schloegel had some reassuring words for the supervisors.

"The city will not expose the board, which means, the taxpayers of the county, nor would it expose the taxpayers of Gulfport, to that kind of a reimbursement," said Schloegel.

The mayor asked the board for more time while the city gets an appraisal for the old library building. The board granted the extension.

"Anything that we, we meaning the city and the county, work out for an agreement, have to be agreed by FEMA as well," said the mayor. "No reimbursement would take place. If we cannot reach that accord with FEMA, then the deal's off the table."

Supervisor Ladner said he is also worried that if this debate drags on too long, the county could lose an additional $266,000. That's the money FEMA set aside to tear down the old library building. The county has already received an extension on the demolition. The county must seek a permit from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History to demolish the building, because the library is deemed a Mississippi landmark.

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