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Some in Salt Lake worry about use of funds

There is at least some mild angst beginning to grow among locals as Salt Lake City officials consider using local tax dollars and resources to help Hurricane Katrina victims.

And that worry may get stronger, especially since many Katrina victims say they are considering making Utah their permanent home.

"This is home now," evacuee Darnell Burrow said at Utah's Camp Williams Tuesday.

Burrows, 46, told the Deseret Morning News she likes what she's seen in her four days in Utah, especially the family-oriented nature of the state.

Others, including Charles Miller, said he'll be looking for work here. Miller, who is a welder, said he has little interest in returning to his former home, the lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

A Tulane University official said he expects many evacuees, who are often poor and have few ties to the place they came from, will choose not to return home.

"Katrina had a tremendous impact on the black people who lived here," Lance Hill, director of a diversity training program at Tulane, told the Los Angeles Times. "This city was tough on a lot of them even before the hurricane. A lot of them were already unemployed or had minimum-wage jobs. Many of them were renters. They don't have anything to come back to. A lot of them are just not going to come back."

Those who want to stay in Utah — about half the evacuees Gov. Jon Huntsman talked with during a Tuesday morning tour of Camp Williams — will get help the state can offer to find jobs and housing, Huntsman said. "We'll work with them, as a community," he said.

But not everyone is happy about newcomers coming in and absorbing needed resources.

Salt Lake resident David Nelson was irked when Salt Lake City Housing Authority executive director Rosemary Kappes suggested hurricane evacuees may receive housing assistance ahead of locals.

Those dollars were earmarked for the poor in Salt Lake City and should go to help out Utah's poor, not the impoverished from New Orleans or Mississippi, said Nelson, who is one of 4,000 Utahns waiting for housing assistance. "It's obscene she would even suggest breaking the trust she had with her Utah constituents for the sake of some whipped-up bleeding heart hubris," Nelson wrote to the City Council.

Nelson said he was happy Utah stepped up to accept evacuees and that corporate sponsors have made large contributions. Still, he drew the line at housing assistance.

"To bend the rules and break laws because of some trumped-up 'moral obligation' and place Utah citizens behind non-citizens" is not good public policy, he said.

Still, Nelson kept some humor, referencing the recognizable MasterCard television commercials.

"Getting bumped to the head of a five-year waiting list when residents with medical disabilities and no chance of employment stand by and watch — priceless."

While less tongue-in-cheek, City Councilman Eric Jergensen shares those worries.

"One of the concerns I have is that we have lots of people in our city that have tremendous needs for help," he said. "Let's not take one tragedy and exacerbate another one."

Despite any political dissent, the City Council Tuesday tentatively supported a plan to allocate $100,000 in rental assistance dollars for Katrina victims in Utah. A final vote will come Sept. 20.

That money was supposed to help first-time home buyers purchase or remodel houses in Salt Lake City. Instead it will help an estimated 20 to 25 Katrina evacuees pay rent over the next six months.

The plan is to help evacuees who might want to stay in Utah on a longer basis. The city and the housing authority are also asking if landlords will discount their rates to provide for more housing.

The $100,000 plan was hatched after officials at the federal department Housing and Urban Development contacted the U.S. Conference of Mayors to ask if cities could offer any assistance to evacuees. Mayor Rocky Anderson, a major player in the conference of mayors, then proposed spending the $100,000 for Katrina evacuees.

Other government agencies are offering help as well.

The Department of Workforce Services will hold a job fair Thursday at Camp Williams, where Utah's 600 evacuees are staying.

According to the department, about a dozen employers have called the agency and expressed an interest in hiring the evacuees. At one time, the agency had several hundred jobs available, Workforce Services deputy director John Nixon said.

Most of the jobs are construction-related, said public information officer Curt Stewart. Offers have come in from employers all over the state, he said, including one company that had openings in Hurricane and Cedar City and offered housing along with the jobs.

"I do know that there are people here with skills," Stewart said, noting that one evacuee — a painter — helped spruce up the drop-in day-care center set up Monday at Camp Williams.