County managers question airport request

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 1, 2008

For at least the second time in as many years, Tri-County Airport officials are seeking local funding matches to assist in getting a pot of federal money.

However, there has been some discussion on the part of the local government managers in Hertford, Bertie and Northampton counties as to the appropriateness of the airport continually seeking county funds.

&uot;Historically, the airport has been asking the three counties to provide that match and we have in the past matched funds in the previous fiscal year… now they have appeared again in the midst of a fiscal year requesting yet another local match on another pot of money,&uot; stated Hertford County Manager Loria Williams in a phone interview.

She added, &uot;There has been some conversation and some reluctance on the part of managers, not commissioners but managers, in setting this precedence in doing it mid-year.&uot;

At the last meeting of the Hertford County Commissioners on July 21, a representative of the airport came before the board to ask for $3,000 in county funds as part of the $12,000 needed for a local match to get a $111,000 Federal Vision 100 grant.

The board voted to approve the match, contingent upon Bertie and Northampton counties doing the same.

But the questions seem to remain: why county funds, and why mid-year?

Bertie County Manager Zee Lamb and Northampton County Manager Wayne Jenkins echoed Williams’ concerns.

&uot;In general, we prefer to have all the budget requests at the proper time, which is in April or May during the budget work sessions, before the commissioners pass the budget each year,&uot; Lamb noted.

Henry Joyner, who owns Tri-Air Inc. and helps operate the airport, says the reason for requesting mid-year funding is because the airport wasn’t given the level of local funding it did request in the budget process.

&uot;We requested $25,000 from each county, but only received $15,000 from Bertie and Hertford and $8,000 from Northampton… if we’d gotten the amount requested we wouldn’t be having to go back for additional funding,&uot; Joyner told the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald in a phone interview.

The main money-maker for the airport comes from the sale of jet fuel.

In the airport authority’s proposed budget for 2008-2009, an estimated $110,000 in revenues are expected from that venture.

Given that the jet fuel cost to the airport is projected at $74,000, the airport can expect to make a $36,000 profit.

However, that money, along with the thousands of dollars from each county, is paid back out to various other expenditures.

The airport gives an annual $21,000 pumping fee to Joyner, as well as an $18,000 management contract.

Another $20,000 per year goes into a sinking fund designated for runway maintenance.

The general consensus of the county managers in the area seems to be questioning why the airport can’t use its own funds for the local match.

&uot;I’m not certain why they couldn’t use their fund balance,&uot; said Williams.

Lamb stated, &uot;The reason they don’t have the match available in their fund balance is because the majority of the potential profits benefit the airport operator.&uot;

He added, &uot;You’ve got a situation where there is a private business and its owner is privately benefiting from a public situation while being subsidized by the government.&uot;

Jenkins, while acknowledging the importance of the airport to the area, suggested the airport come up with a sustainability plan.

&uot;I would like to see a sustainability plan come forth from the airport that would be the basis for which recurring revenues could support operation and maintenance costs, so in the future money like this can come from within rather than from the counties,&uot; he stated.

Jenkins continued, &uot;The county is an easy source to request money from but these are difficult times… the last year was the hardest financially I can remember in the eight years I’ve been county manager.&uot;

He added, &uot;They need to take a look at whatever needs to be done to reorganize whatever expenditures and revenues so they can be self-sustaining.

I don’t believe it was ever the goal for counties to sustain the airport’s funding on a yearly basis and self-sustainability is crucial in today’s world.&uot;

The current pot of money the airport is seeking would be funding to expand the runway by 500 feet.

According to Joyner, having a 5,000-foot runway is crucial to the future survival of the airport, due to the fact that larger corporate jets cannot land on the runway at its current length in inclement weather.

The Tri-County Airport is home base for nine planes and sees about 4,000 flights come and go each year.

In Northampton County’s most recent commissioners meeting, the board did not commit to the local match but instructed Jenkins to study the issue.

The Bertie County Commissioners are scheduled to address the matter at their next meeting on Monday morning.