County OKs Matching Funds for $2.5 Million Airport Grant
BY FLORENCE GILKESON
Commissioner Craig Kennedy didn't wait for the PowerPoint presentation.
The newest member of the Moore County Board of Commissioners speeded up the discussion Tuesday when the Airport Authority made a request for special funding. His effort resulted in a unanimous vote to appropriate $250,000 as the local match to draw down a $2.5 million block grant from the N.C. Department of Transportation.
"Don't put them in a bind," Kennedy said before making a motion to appropriate the matching funds.
The "bind" is the time element in which the Moore County Airport must upgrade runways and a ramp as well as make other improvements in time for the back-to-back U.S. Open golf championships in Pinehurst in 2014.
The $2.5 million is needed to expand the ramp, extend one runway and grade another runway - all improvements required to meet Federal Aviation Administration guidelines. The airport will be required to use its own cash on hand to pay for improvements to buildings and other facilities.
Airport Manager Ron Maness was prepared to make a presentation when Kennedy asked if it was the same program presented to the commissioners at a budget planning retreat in January. Maness said it contained the same information.
Kennedy then suggested that the board skip the presentation and engage in discussion of the authority request. He recently toured the airport and said he was impressed with its facilities and its staff.
But first, Kennedy wanted to make it clear that he has no personal obligation to the airport or authority members. A licensed pilot, Kennedy said no one knew him at the airport when he first ran for office, but a visit to the facility sold him on its qualifications.
"I'm amazed at the talent we have at that airport - their expertise and their integrity," he said.
Kennedy pointed out that time is of the essence in accepting the state grant, which is available to Moore County because another county was unable or unwilling to take advantage of the offer.
His fellow commissioners agreed that it is a worthy cause but did engage in discussion about the best source of funding without affecting the General Fund, which pays for regular county operations.
"I support the airport," Commissioner Tim Lea said. "My father-in-law used to serve on your board. This is not about you guys not doing a good job."
But Lea went on to point out that county employees have gone two years without raises and the shaky economy has required sharp budget cuts.
"We have an obligation to our taxpayers," Lea said. "We have a responsibility to them to try to treat everyone fairly."
Lea suggested that the appropriation be in the form of a loan, rather than an outright allocation.
"The airport belongs to the people of Moore County," Kennedy said. "If we lend them money, it is basically taxpayers lending money to taxpayers."
Maness added that, even with the grant and the county money, the airport must find the money to make other improvements to facilities.
"It is part of the county infrastructure," Maness said. "It's going to pay huge dividends in the future. This is a much needed infrastructure improvement."
Board Chairman Nick Picerno questioned why the allocation could not be in the form of a loan. He asked if it would be legal to make arrangements for repayment of the loan if other funds become available earlier.
"That 500 acres belongs to all of us," Commissioner Larry Caddell said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Caddell cited a tourism report showing that every person staying at the Carolina Hotel in Pinehurst spends an average of $750 daily while staying in Moore County. He specified that this is per person, not per family or business group.
The commissioners engaged in further debate about the source of funding with County Manager Cary McSwain and County Attorney Misty Leland.
Prior to the meeting, the county administration had secured the latest financial reports from the airport and had prepared a set of options for matching funds. Assets are valued at $2.1 million, including buildings and land, but cash on hand is limited.
The 2010-2011 budget is $3 million, with $761,259 needed to provide a three-month cash flow for operations. It was estimated that the airport could raise $230,943 net from investments. Interest rates on savings are typically low for the current economic situation.
Maness said the airport budget has already been sharply cut with major personnel working on a part-time basis, including himself and Assistant Manager Carol Thomas.
The board's options included a loan from the capital reserve fund with a negotiated interest rate, a match from the capital reserve fund or denial of the request for matching funds.
Finally, at the recommendation of Commissioner Jimmy Melton, the board decided to clarify the original motion.
Kennedy amended the original motion by calling for adoption of a resolution approving the appropriation with the $250,000 to come from a source to be determined, but one that would have no impact on taxpayers. Caddell made the second, and approval was unanimous.
The resolution enables Maness and Thomas to proceed with acceptance of the block grant and completion of administrative details by the deadline in April.
Because the airport no longer has commercial airline passenger service, it does not qualify for substantial grants from the FAA, the source of millions of dollars for runway, traffic pattern, property acquisition, fencing and other safety improvements in past years. The airport must rely now on limited funding available through the N.C. Department of Transportation Aviation Division. Although owned by the county, it operates without grants from the county.
In addition to Maness and Thomas, John Owen, chairman of the Airport Authority, and former County Commissioner Colin McKenzie were present to support the airport request.
Contact Florence Gilkeson at email@example.com.
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