Thursday, December 29, 2005

City wants closer communication with county

Staff Writer

The Holly Springs mayor and board of aldermen discussed the issues related to a possible interlocal agreement with Marshall County government at the mid-December meeting in hopes of resolving issues around shared responsibility for the airport.

The matter resurfaced in boardroom discussions after utility director Tom Boone reported that the airport committee had asked the Holly Springs Utility Department to hold the airport’s utility bill until it is determined if the city was going to pay it.

Boone estimated the monthly utility bill at the airport to run around $350.

“I told him (Bill York, airport committee chair) we could not hold it,” Boone said.

Alderman Nancy Hutchens explained that a proposal for sharing of airport responsibility had called for the county to keep up the grounds and the city to maintain the new runway lighting system once it is installed.

The city and county jointly own the airport property.

“But the city also got caught up in the utility bill,” Hutchens said.

She suggested the city set a cap on how much it would pay to defray airport utility costs in case the bill escalates in the future.

Mayor Andre’ DeBerry said the responsibilities of the parties - the city, county and the Industrial Development Authority - need to be clear now that the airport authority is back in the hands of IDA. He said it is unfair for the city to be stuck with the utility bill.

Alderman Tim Liddy said an open ended agreement to pay the utility bill at the airport would not provide an incentive for conservation.

“How long do we want to carry them?” Boone asked.

DeBerry said IDA gets revenue from clients at the airport and direct revenues to handle things like utility bills but the city and county do not draw revenues from the airport.

“But it is in the interest of both (parties),” he said to have the airport facility.

“I think the airport board needs to understand they are there to make sure the interests of the city are protected,” the mayor said.

Hutchens said the board of aldermen did agree the city would join the county in sharing expenses at the airport to supplement what IDA provides.

“Perhaps we need IDA to give us a budget of where they stand in terms of revenue and expenses,” she said.

DeBerry said he thinks the city could get a report of the operating expenses, which he said were likely small. Capital improvements at the airport would far outweigh maintenance costs, he said.

“I don’t want that to get lost on them how important these contributions (in kind) are,” DeBerry said.

He offered to bring to the board a report of the operating costs and revenues at the January 3 meeting.

“Then can we give them a delay on payment (of the utility bill) until we look at the agreement?” Liddy asked.

“And the exact cost of utilities?” asked alderman Russell Johnson.

“They asked if the city wants a single board,” Liddy continued.

DeBerry said the airport has an ad hoc committee overseeing the management of the airport until the board is either reappointed or replaced.

“We ask for the utility costs, operating expenses and income, then?” DeBerry asked.

At that juncture, Liddy suggested that some of the aldermen talk with the board of supervisors occasionally to clear the air (on issues of joint responsibility).

“Or would that be dangerous?” he asked.

Hutchens suggested that communications between the boards could be done at elected official luncheons where other citizens and groups are also present.

“If we did meet with supervisors we’d be in violation (of the statutes),” said DeBerry. “If two or more members meet it is a meeting. So we should have the luncheon or something.”

“Whether it is the board of supervisors or us, there are a lot of things to be communicated,” Liddy said. “We have this Tax Increment Financing Plan (that affects the county).”

DeBerry suggested the possibility of a round-table discussion or retreat perhaps quarterly or biannually.

“We could get updated on projects each other has,” he said.

In a separate interview with Bill Renick, IDA executive director, last week, Renick clarified the past relationship the city, county and IDA have with respect to the airport.

The actual authority to operate the airport remains with IDA while an airport committee makes decisions about daily operations, he said.

In the past the airport committee was comprised of one appointed member from each supervisor district and a member appointed by the City of Holly Springs.

The current airport management committee members are IDA members Bill York, Del Stover, Lennell Lucas, and Russell Johnson. Other appointed committee members are Sharlotte Saunders and county appointed members Don Buford, Lonnie Sproles, Al Beck, Bill Schneller and Danny Tate.

Renick said under recent proposals the city could let the IDA committee represent Holly Springs (via alderman Russell Johnson) or make appointments from each ward similar to the the way the county has district representation.

The county committee already is meeting with the IDA Airport Committee Board, he said.

“The county has already accepted the proposal and the city has discussed it,” said Renick. “We have been assured by the mayor they would take the proposal under consideration.”

Also, under a recent proposal, Renick said the city would take over payment of the utilities at the airport, the county would maintain the grounds and buildings and IDA would do the administrative work to apply for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grants to keep the airport in compliance with FAA requirements.

He said the solution for funding of airport operations would have been that the city and county contribute a share to the airport budget each year.

In fact, they have in past years, Renick said, but sometimes the funding was insufficient.

Most of the money the city and county have provided is used to provide matching money to obtain federal grants to bring the airport up to FAA regulations, Renick said.

“My understanding is the county had funded $5,000 for the airport,” Renick said.

But IDA needed $10,000.

The airport authority can apply to the FAA for about $150,000 a year in grants bringing the local match to 10 percent or $15,000, Renick said.

In recent years some $7,500 has been obtained from the Mississippi Department of Transportation leaving $7,500 as the local share.

The grants have made possible some improvements - the installing of new runway lighting; overlay and repair of the runway; fencing of the airfield; and grading to keep water from standing on or eroding under the runway - measures FAA requires to guarantee safety for pilots and the public. The lighting is required so pilots can make unscheduled emergency landings when in trouble. The fence helps keep out stray animals that can get on the runway and cause airplane accidents on landing or takeoff.

“All these improvements are basic necessities,” Renick said.

And expansion of the airport would be prudent now that the Olive Branch airport has a brisk business and that new industry is spilling over to the county from Memphis, he said.

The airport committee wants to apply for federal money to widen the runway and clear trees at the ends of the runway. And new hanger space, if added, will be leased by private aircraft owners and increase income for the airport, Renick said.

IDA gets some money to pay for operating costs and new projects at the airport from a small fuel-tax rebate from the sale of aviation fuel, from rent of hanger space and from contributions from the city and county, Renick said.

“IDA has had to use some of its own funds (not taxpayers money from the county or city) to make up shortfalls in matching money for grants, he said.

If capital improvements at the airport are not kept up with, the airport could lose its FAA license to operate.

Management of the airport operations has been entirely through voluntary contributions of time from airport committee members. In the past the airport committee has paid for maintenance out of operating funds. There are no paid employees at the airport.

In fiscal year 2005, IDA contributed $4,000 from its own budget to make up the shortfall in matching money for grants for airport improvements, Renick said.

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