The Macon County Airport Authority is short about $853,000 of what it needs to pay for a controversial runway extension, according to airport officials.
The total runway project, including archaeology and engineering, is expected to cost $3.5 million, according to Airport Authority member Tommy Jenkins.
Airport Authority Clerk Teresa McDowell said about $777,000 has already been spent or committed for archaeology and engineering on the project.
According to McDowell, it will cost the Airport Authority about $1.87 to million finish the runway, which means the Airport Authority is about $853,000 short of what it needs, she said.
The airport runway extension is controversial because it is proposed to go over Cherokee artifacts and burial grounds. The Airport Authority is only funding 25 percent artifact excavation, which angers the Eastern Band of Cherokee and others who say 100 percent of the artifacts should be saved to prevent their destruction.
Airport Authority Chairman Milles Gregory said the project is being funded with 80 percent federal funds, 10 percent state and 10 percent county funds.
The N.C. DOT Division of Aviation took back $550,000 from a grant last year because the money wasn’t used by the Airport Authority in time, McDowell said.
It is unclear where the money went. N.C. DOT Grants Administrator Nancy Seigler was unable to answer questions before press time on Tuesday.
The grant, which was awarded in 2004, wasn’t used in time because the project was held up by negotiations between the Airport Authority, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Federal Aviation Administration, State Historic Preservation Office and the Division of Aviation. The negotiations concerned how much excavation of Cherokee artifacts would take place at the project site, McDowell said.
The Airport Authority hopes to get the $550,000 back.
Airport Authority Chairman Gregory said he was promised by Richard Barkes, manager of Aviation System Development for the N.C. DOT Division of Aviation, that the $550,000 would be reimbursed.
McDowell said the Airport Authority has been told over the phone by the Division of Aviation that it would be reimbursed the $550,000 in the form of a new grant. But McDowell said the Airport Authority hasn’t received the grant documents yet.
Even if the Airport Authority gets the $550,000 back it will still have a shortfall of about $303,000.
McDowell said the Airport Authority is “optimistic” that more funding will become available to cover the shortfall. Gregory said he thinks the remaining shortfall can be made up with $150,000 “Vision 100” grants that the Airport Authority receives annually from N.C. DOT Division of Aviation. It is unclear if the Vision 100 money is state money or federal funds that pass through the N.C. DOT Division of Aviation.
McDowell said the $550,000 that was taken back was supposed to be used for the environmental assessment for the project. Because that money was taken back, McDowell said the Airport Authority is now using money from its construction grant on the environmental assessment.
County funds in play
Some have urged the county commissioners not to commit county taxpayer dollars to the project. Withholding the county match for the project could sideline it.
According to County Finance Director Evelyn Southard there is $187,000 in county funds currently budgeted for the project.
Southard did not know what year the county appropriated the money.
County Commissioner Bob Simpson has proposed pulling the county dollars from the project unless a compromise between the Airport Authority and Eastern Band is reached.
However, Simpson seems to be alone in that the other commissioners appear to favor moving forward.
Commissioner Brian McClellan told The Smoky Mountain News he doesn’t “have an opinion at this time” but “it would appear” that county dollars are not going to be pulled from the project. McClellan said there is “always a chance” funding could be pulled.
Commission Chairman Ronnie Beale said he feels that the Airport Authority has “done due diligence” in the project.
Beale said there is no doubt that the runway extension is needed to keep insurance costs down for pilots who land there. No one has said the runway extension is not needed, Beale said.
However, several people have publicly said that they don’t think a runway extension is needed.
As far as taking the county dollars from the project, Beale said that money was “appropriated a good long time ago.”
He added that the grants are a good opportunity because they only require a 10 percent county match. Anytime the county can get something done for 10 cents on the dollars it’s good, said Beale.