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Wednesday, 23 December 2009 13:45

Jackson commissioners take over airport authority

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Facing a moribund governing body and a facility once again in need of expensive repairs, the Jackson County board of commissioners did what it’s been unwilling to do in the past –– assume management of the airport.

The commissioners totally overhauled the Jackson County Airport Authority by appointing themselves to five vacant seats on its board and bringing the governing body up to its full complement.

The move ends a long-running power struggle between an airport authority that largely represented the interests of the local flying community and a county board that had grown weary of contributing tax dollars to a tiny aviation field plagued by problems.

The county has twice attempted to ratchet up its control over the airport in recent years. The authority once functioned as an autonomous body, but county leaders grew displeased with it in 2005 and attempted to remove and reappoint some of its members. The county was sued for overstepping its bounds, however.

In a second move to exert influence, commissioners got a special bill passed by the state legislature that changed the airport authority’s bylaws and gave the county control over its appointments. The authority has since been plagued by vacant seats, however, as the county commissioners failed to make timely appointments.

The latest move is the ultimate step, giving the commissioners full control of the airport’s future — including its finances, a major sticking point for the county.

While the vote settled the fate of the airport’s governing body, it didn’t represent a unified voice about the airport’s mission in the future.

Chairman Brian McMahan and Commissioner William Shelton, the lone dissenter in the 4 to 1 vote, both indicated that they believe it is the county’s responsibility to maintain the airport and indicated they would be willing to contribute money to help make the airport self-sufficient.

“The airport is here, and I believe it’s something we have to deal with,” McMahan said.

Commissioners Tom Massie and Joe Cowan reiterated their positions that while they supported keeping the airport safe for the public, they did not support any expansion of the airport in the future.

County Manager Ken Westmoreland offered the board a number of improvement scenarios that could help the airport move toward self-sufficiency. The construction of T-hangars, which could be rented to pilots to park their planes, would provide a steady source of revenue, while widening the airport’s runway could bump the airport into a new FAA tier and help leverage more state and federal dollars.

Massie and Cowan said they would not vote to spend county money on those improvements, however.

The airport is currently saddled with a failed lighting system that will cost $150,000 to fix. Planes cannot use the airport after dark, effectively making the airport useless as a site for emergency landings, for example.

The county qualifies for grant money that will pay for those repairs if it’s willing to contribute $16,667 of local matching funds in return for the $134,000 of state and federal grant money.

The commissioners will take up the issue of funding the lighting repairs at their first meeting in January. That will likely be the first in a series of debates about how to get the most of the county’s investment in the facility.

Cowan was adamant that the county not pour more money into the airport.

“If we go with the lights, we’re encouraging people to land at night, and I don’t want to encourage that,” Cowan said.

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