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Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr has a Katrina Homeowner Grant

By Keith Burton - GCN    1/4/08

Residents who drive along the beach highway in Gulfport may have noticed that among the few homes being rebuilt is a huge, recently columned home just east of the Armed Forces Retirement Home complex. That is the property of Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr, which is undergoing extensive renovations.

The state’s Homeowner Grant program is under considerable scrutiny. Governor Barbour and state officials have repeatedly said that the highest level of integrity would be part of the program. While the program has benefited thousands of citizens, any public official that has benefited from the program is news in the public’s interest, and that includes Brent Warr.

First, some background on the Homeowner Grant program.

The grant program was set up by the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) after the hurricane to help Katrina survivors rebuild their homes. Getting a Homeowner Grant from the MDA has been a savior for many Coast residents who successfully completed the lengthy process, and who lost their homes from flooding during hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005. Coast residents who lost their homes during Katrina can still apply to the state’s Homeowner Grant program, according to officials with the Mississippi Development Authority. 

Phase one of the grant program was designed to help property owners whose homes were destroyed by Katrina’s flooding that lived outside of the flood zones. The income level of the residents didn’t matter for the Phase I program.

Getting a Homeowner grant is not an easy process; applicants must show that they owned and lived their homes prior to Aug. 29, 2005. The regulations require that applicants prove that their home be their primary residence and submit ownership paperwork such as deeds, bill statements and bank records, to document their residency as part of the proof.

According to the official Homeowner Grant rules:

“Eligibility Requirements

• Homeowner owned and occupied  (italics added by GCN) their home as of August 29, 2005.

• Home was located in Harrison, Hancock, Jackson or Pearl River Counties, Mississippi.

• Home was homeowner’s primary residence on August 29, 2005.

• Homeowner maintained homeowners insurance on the property.

• Home was located outside the pre-Katrina designated flood zone (FEMA-designated 100-

  year flood zone) on August 29, 2005, and flooded as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

  Only 1 application per home is allowed. If homeowner does not meet all the requirements listed

  above, they do not qualify for this program.”

Applicants that survived the gauntlet of requirements would then receive up to $150,000 in grant money, which they would not have to repay, to help them rebuild their homes, repair them, or even move to another location to build a home. Inspectors with the MDA then would monitor the work to insure that the money was spent on the property.

All homeowners that received an MDA grant would have covenants placed on their property deeds reflecting that they would maintain insurance, including flood insurance (if required), build according code to regulations, and meet elevation requirements.

Among the recipients of the Homeowner Grant Program, and certainly a recipient with perhaps the highest public profile is Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr.

According to a March 11, 2005 article in the Sun Herald, entitled "I AM QUALIFIED AS A CANDIDATE / RESIDENCE NOT AN ISSUE, BRENT WARR INSISTS.” Warr had purchased a beachfront house from the federal government-owned Armed Forces Retirement Home (AFRH) in February 2003.

Land records on file with the county on the property researched by GCN show Warr later filed the property deed with the county on January 16, 2004, nearly a year after buying the property.

The beachfront house is on property that the AFRH had initially purchased to use for an expansion. Katrina’s flood surge damaged all of the surrounding property including the home Warr had purchased.

Prior to the hurricane, and for nearly two and a half years, the home had apparently received only minor work. Warr and his family have not lived in the beachfront home at any time since its purchase in 2003.  War was quoted in the March 11, 2005 Sun Herald article about not living in the home:

“He said the home on the beach needs work before they can move in,” reported the Sun Herald.

Warr and his family live in a house in the Woodglen area of Gulfport that is owned by a relative. Warr and his family have lived in the Woodglen home in Gulfport since June 2004 after moving from Biloxi prior to running for mayor in 2005.

Over the past year in 2007, the beachfront house has been the subject of an extensive renovation.

(Photo right: Warr home in April 2006)

According to public records on file at the county courthouse, Warr has never filed homestead tax exemption for the house on the beach, and according to Harrison County Tax Assessor Tal Flurry, Brent Warr does not currently have any home with Homestead exemption on file with the county. The homestead tax exemption provides a significant tax reduction and is only available for a property owner’s primary residence.

As mentioned earlier, MDA officials say the requirements for a Homeowner Grant is to own and occupy the property, and that the home is the primary residence of the property owner and not a second home or vacation home.

According to MDA spokeswoman Jennifer Spann, the MDA does work with homeowners on “a case by case” basis” to help them with the grant process, but she could not identify what elements would trigger any exceptions to the policy that required the homeowner to be living in their home prior to the hurricane.

GCN contacted Warr, December 21, about his beachfront home and his Homeowner Grant. Warr acknowledged that his home has not been lived in, except for a “few days” and that he stayed there prior to the hurricane when he was working on the house. “I didn’t move my family in there,” Warr said.

Warr also said in GCN’s Dec. 21 interview that he didn’t want any publicity on his home on the beach explaining, “I have received some threats and the publicity could endanger my family.”

As a result of Warr’s security concerns, GCN held the story and sought to verify the threats Warr had mentioned.

Records of homes owned by individuals are a matter of public record. Most people know where their public officials live, and any threats directed at a public official would also be a public concern. The Coast has a history of violence against public officials, so GCN took Warr’s comments seriously.

Gulfport police officials contacted by GCN this week say that there are no threats against Warr or any additional security concerns not typical of a public official.

GCN again contacted Warr, Jan. 3, about the security issue and he insisted there were concerns but, “Not everybody you speak to in the city, no one you speak to, are obligated to divulge private business,” Warr said.

Warr again said in the Jan. 3 interview that, “I have a Homeowners Grant.” He also insists that he met the residency requirements of the grant program.

“I actually lived in that house. A few days or what. I spent a lot of time there. I did live in it. It was my residence,” Warr explained.

GCN asked Warr to explain further:

GCN: How many weeks did you live there?

Warr: “I don’t recall.”

GCN: Was it more than one?

Warr: “Certainly.”

In addition, there is a Sun Herald story published in Oct. 2007 regarding a Sound Off column caller who asked the newspaper to investigate police stopping people around Warr’s Woodglen home. In the Sun Herald article, titled  "SCRUTINY COMES WITH PUBLIC OFFICE," Warr was quoted dismissing the comment.

"Come on, man," the mayor told LaFontaine (of the Sun Herald). "Next thing you know there'll be rumors that I have the public works crew over here digging a moat around my house."

The locations of Warr’s homes both in the Woodglen neighborhood and on the beach have already been established in the news media. When this was explained to Warr he said he had made an agreement with the Sun Herald when he was running for mayor for the Sun Herald not to write about where he lives. “And they have honored this,” Warr said Jan.3.

The Sun Herald mentioned Warr’s ownership of the beachfront property in the March 11, 2005 article cited earlier in this report. Warr’s agreement with the newspaper over writing about his residency apparently occurred after that article. It is noted that the Sun Herald later endorsed Warr for mayor in a field of some eight other candidates.

A story in the Sun Herald, published shortly after the hurricane noted that Warr owned the property under renovation on the beach next to the Armed Forces Retirement home, and GCN has reported on that property in prior news reports as far back as Feb. 2007, without any complaint or concern over safety issues from Warr.


Additional Information:

Building Permits on Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr's Renovated Beachfront House has Gaps - GCN

Additional Information:

Gulfport Mayor's Receipt of Homeowner Grant Under Scrutiny by Federal Authorities - GCN 2/15/08

Gulfport Mayor Under Investigation by Federal Authorities - WLOX  2/14/08
 

Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr Defends Receipt of Homeowner Grant - Sun Herald 2/14/08

Elephant in the Room: Investigation into Warr's Homeowner Grant Continues - GCN 3/10/08

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