By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO While the county airport spends more than it brings in every year, legislators are interested in gaining more revenue from it than closing it.
That seemed the consensus at Thursday’s Public Works Committee meeting, where county officials discussed the merits and costs of the Sullivan County International Airport in White Lake.
Opened in time for the 1969 Woodstock festival, the airport only briefly lived up to its “international” moniker (through scheduled flights to Canada), and since then, it’s played host to small aircraft, corporate jets, and aviation-oriented businesses and community groups.
But as Airport Superintendent Mike Mullen pointed out to legislators, the well-maintained runway sees close to 35,000 operations (landings and takeoffs) per year.
And with 41 aircraft in residence, the hangars are full, he added.
Featuring an automated weather station, instrument landing system, 240 mowed acres and two million square feet of pavement, it’s even capable of handling larger passenger jets on a limited basis.
But the airport cost $413,176 to operate last year, and it only brought in around $89,000 in revenue (not counting sales tax receipts from the fixed base operator, Woodstock Aircraft Services, and the Altitude Café).
That means the county spent $324,176 on the airport last year that it did not recoup, and while that’s just 1.35 percent of the Division of Public Works’ budget, legislators want to bridge that revenue gap.
Outright closure didn’t seem palatable to the county, however, as it would require the payback of around $20 million in federal funding from the past two decades, according to Public Works Commissioner Bob Meyer.
Privatizing the facility earned the interest of legislators like Cindy Gieger, but others worried that such a course would ultimately cost the county more than it spends now.
Legislator Ira Steingart and some of his colleagues thought the airport could be a valuable catalyst for economic development including the nearby industrial park, which sits on airport property and is on the verge of tapping into a long-needed water source.
The landing fees drew the most interest. Currently, jets are charged $100, single-engine planes $50 and charter flights $30 per landing.
But that only applies to commercial aircraft not based at the airport a fraction of the 35,000 operations a year.
“Approximately 300,” Mullen replied when asked how many landings were fee-based in 2011. “Last year we collected $14,000 in revenue from landings.”
“So raising fees could be a chunk of change,” Gieger mulled.
The problem there, however, is neighboring counties’ airports have similar sometimes lower fees, so hiking such costs could drive away the money-producing flights, worried Legislator Gene Benson.
County Manager David Fanslau said he’d do some research and get back to the Legislature by this Thursday.
With promises that this won’t be yet another study gathering dust on county bookcases, Wadley-Donovan GrowthTech President Bill Fredrick pitched his company’s idea for an economic development strategy plan to legislators on Thursday.
“Our reports are not designed for sitting on the shelf,” Fredrick assured the Executive Committee. “That’s a waste of your time and taxpayers’ resources.”
Instead, he proposed a “short, doable plan” that would result from a year’s worth of research, focus groups, one-on-one interviews and recommendations.
Legislators unanimously agreed to hire Fredrick and his company for $50,000.
Legislature Chairman Scott Samuelson said the choice was the culmination of a series of requests for qualifications and proposals from more than a dozen companies, whittled down to four by a county review committee, then reduced to the New Jersey-based Wadley-Donovan.
The costs will be entirely borne by the federal government through a grant from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Samuelson said.
He, too, wants an “actionable and achievable” plan.
“The idea is to take a look at all of the [previous] studies,” he explained. “... It’s bringing all the pieces together.”
At Thursday’s Management and Budget Committee meeting, the county’s external auditors Nicholas DeSantis and Scott Oling of O’Connor Davies affirmed that the county’s recent use of surplus monies to help balance the 2012 budget has left it in a precarious position for 2013.
Only $3.2 million of what was once $6.2 million in surplus (fund balance) remains.
“That in and of itself presents a challenge to you going forward in 2013,” affirmed DeSantis.
The fund balance was tapped in an effort to avoid tax hikes, but until it’s replenished, the county remains financially vulnerable, he indicated.
One bright spot, said Legislator Jonathan Rouis, was that these figures were being discussed in May, rather than later this year.
“This is the earliest in the year in my time here [on the Legislature] we’ve had these numbers,” he said, calling them “timely and meaningful.”
As the external audit is not yet finished, however, no action was taken.