More info sought before takeover decision

Jul. 03, 2013 @ 05:55 AM

A decision by the Rutherford County Airport Authority to purchase land for nearly double its appraised value from County Commission Chairman Julius Owens sparked conversation of a takeover of the Authority by the Rutherford County Commission.

Commissioners discussed a potential takeover at its regular meeting Monday night.

In March, commissioners sought a local bill in the North Carolina General Assembly to give the flexibility to take over the Airport Authority if it deemed necessary.

House Bill 290, which was passed by the Senate in June after being pushed through the House earlier, allows the Rutherford County Commission to serve as ex officio members of the Airport Authority without additional compensation. If commissioners enacted the law they would bring the airport under county control.

After an executive session Monday, commissioners began weighing the options of utilizing HB 290 to take over the Authority.

"We still have some unanswered questions and I am trying to give the benefit of the doubt to the current Authority," said Commissioner Bo Richard, who made the motion Monday night to table any decision until the August meeting.

Owens asked County Attorney Richard Williams if he should be excused for the vote due to the fact that it surrounds the purchase of his property.

"If you feel the need to ask, then you should excuse yourself," Williams said.

County Manager Carl Classen said there is a sample resolution drafted in the event commissioners decide to take over the Airport Authority.

However, commissioners balked at making an immediate decision until Classen delivers a report, including financials, and any transactions the Airport Authority is engaged in.

"We need to know what the immediate, short-range and long-range budget effects if this does happen," said Commissioner Greg Lovelace.

Conversation came to a head Monday night during the July meeting of the County Commission when Airport Authority Chairman Bob Howard was grilled by commissioners over the purchase of land owned by Owens. The Authority — under the direction of the North Carolina Division of Aviation — paid $300,000 for the 10-acre tract of land that does not currently touch the airport boundaries. Two independent appraisals valued the land and buildings at approximately $168,000.

According to the Rutherford County Revenue Department, the latest tax value of the land was $108,400.

The reason for the purchase was to settle an issue of a tree on Owens' land that put the airport in federal violation of the mandated glide slope ratio.

While Howard defended the purchase as necessary, he also blamed the previous Airport Authority for not following through with a 2010 tentative arrangement with Owens that would have given an easement to the airport and allowed for the tree's removal at a cost of $12,000.

Commissioners grilled Howard about the circumstances surrounding the purchase including questions over grant funds passed through the county from the federal government to the Authority for the intent of land acquisition. He said the federal government gave the Authority $611,000 for land purchase. Howard said the Authority purchased a 52-acre tract in February for market value at approximately $180,000, leaving nearly $431,000 in federal grant money.

"The County Commission knew what the money was earmarked for," Howard said.

Howard also said that no elected officials in Raleigh had any input on the land transaction. He was asked specifically if Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, knew of the deal.

"Personally, since I've been serving we have gone through a lot of turmoil and we have lost the trust of the people," said Commissioner Eddie Holland. "I think this deal doesn't have the public trust either.

"I think this is really sad for the county."