Rutherford County still weighing airport options

Feb. 27, 2013 @ 10:51 AM

The future of the Rutherford County Airport Authority has been up in the air for the last two months.

The Rutherford County Commission tabled discussion regarding the future of the Authority and gave County Attorney Richard Williams some direction in February as to a potential change.

With no decision expected until March, the county has the option of changing the designation of the board from an authority to an advisory board. That change will mean only the County Commission would have the ability to levy taxes or exercise eminent domain at the airport. The Airport Authority has that ability now under its current structure.

County officials said that the issue is not with current operations.

“There is a certain amount of oversight and management that goes on,” said Carl Classen, Rutherford County manager. “The current Airport Authority chair (Bob Howard) is a great volunteer and they are doing great things.”

In fact, Classen said that the Airport Authority has taken over airport operations since Amy Thomas of Western North Carolina Aviation resigned the contract as the facility’s Forward Base Operator (FBO) in June 2012. Since that time, the Airport Authority has changed its price of fuel and started to turn profits with the sale of that fuel.

“They have sold enough to pay back $15,000 of an original $20,000 investment,” Classensaid.

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Those things have left Airport Authority Chairman Bob Howard questioning the need for a change.

“My biggest problem is that if it’s not broken, why do you want to repair it,” Howard said. “We are doing well and making money for a change.”

In fact, Howard said that a recent budget amendment adopted by commissioners was the first since 1971 that had been due to increased revenue at the airport.

Commissioners said that the issue is more with the future of the airport operations.

“This board that we have up there at this point is doing an excellent job,” said Commissioner Bill Eckler. “But, they may not be there forever and we need to put into place some kind of protection.”

In order to make the change from an airport authority to an advisory board, the county has to submit a local bill to state legislators. Time is becoming of the essence because the county has until mid-March to file that bill to make the change happen during this session of the General Assembly.

During its February meeting, commissioners asked Williams to see if the county can pull out of its current arrangement and change the governing authority of the board.

“We need to research what can be done, or we stay where we are, or have an advisory board,” Eckler said. “We need to see what might be in between.”

Commissioner Bo Richard suggested that, if an option is not found, Williams should have the authority to make the change to an authority.

“They have the ability to levy taxes and exercise eminent domain,” Richard said. “The only people who should have that ability are elected officials and there needs to be some accountability.”

But, fellow commissioners took the route of wanting to explore other alternatives before pulling the trigger on the change.

“I would like to work with the attorney to see if there is an option out there,” said Commission Chairman Julius Owens. “That would be the best approach for the county, in my opinion.”

Williams said that Classen is already looking at other airports and the structure of other airport boards in the region.

As for Howard, he said that he would not favor a move making the board an advisory board but said that it was the commissioners who have the final decision.

“It is up to them on what they want to do,” Howard said. “I think it would be a problematic move but they are the elected officials and, if that is what they want to do, that is what they will do.”

Commissioners will hold their regular meeting at 6 p.m. March 4 at the Rutherford County Annex in Rutherfordton.