In response to both a formal and informal complaint regarding the increased hangar rental rates at the St. Clair Regional Airport, the city decided last week to roll back the amount it charges tenants to last year’s fee.
The action did not come without some controversy, however, as Mayor Ron Blum had to break an unusual 2-2 tie and cast the deciding vote during the most recent board of aldermen meeting.
“In the short run, this will cost our community money,” Blum said while announcing his vote on Jan. 7. “In the long run, we will be relieved of this burden.”
The “burden” is the airport, which the city is in the process of seeking permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to close. Permission must be granted by the FAA because the city has received federal grants, as late as 2006, to use on repairs and upgrades at the facility.
The city is attempting to close the airport on the north side of town between Interstate 44 and Highway 47 to make way for retail development.
At least since 2007, when airport revenue and expenses were placed in a separate line item in the city’s general fund, the facility has operated in the red and lost money every year. The only revenue for the facility comes through the hangar rental rates.
The decision means the eight pilots who rent hangar space at the facility will pay $175 per month like they did in 2012. Late last year during the city’s budgeting process, aldermen increased the rate to $300 in an effort to help the airport operate in the black.
Doing the math, the Jan. 7 vote will cost the city $1,000 per month in revenue or $12,000 over the course of the year if eight tenants remain throughout 2013.
The complaints were filed with the Federal Aviation Administration by at least one of the pilots, who claimed increasing the rent was “unjustly discriminatory and unreasonable.” St. Clair airport tenant Jim DeVries, who lives in Pacific, has been the most vocal of the small handful of tenants who are opposed to St. Clair’s attempt to close the facility.
He previously has filed other complaints with the FAA. One complaint states that the city is “stealing money from the airport.”
None of the tenants who rent space at the airport live in St. Clair.
On DeVries’ blog, which he calls the St. Clair Airport blog, a Jan. 8 post stated that, “The one-sided theatrical display at city hall that we saw Monday night does not satisfy the FAA regulations on negotiations, no matter how funny they were. I am not laughing at the situation or the plot, just the actors. The city council has made a fool out of themselves so far, and after Monday night at the theater, it looks like they will continue to do so.”
The board’s vote came on the heels of a letter received at the end of last year from the U.S. Department of Transportation that stated “the agency will not consider closing St. Clair Regional Airport ... until the city corrects deficiencies at the airport.”
One of the three points listed in the letter was “resolving the formal complaint ... and the recent informal complaint regarding the increase in tenant rental fees.”
City officials received and reviewed the letter late last week and brought the matter to the aldermen.
The other “corrective action” items outlined by USDOT include making adequate repairs at the facility and addressing operational and financial issues.
All of the aldermen were hesitant to make the motion to roll back the rental rates on Monday, prompting City Administrator Rick Childers to say that “winning wars is more important than winning battles.”
Finally, Ward 2 Alderman Barb McGlenn made the motion, and Ward 1 Alderman Nathan Tate seconded it. Those two voted in favor while Ward 1’s Zach Fuchs and Ward 2’s Travis Dierker said nay.
Points on Letter
As far as the other two points on the USDOT letter, Blum said an electrician is working on repairing broken or burned out runway lights, even though the city said it is no longer obligated to provide night operations at the facility. As far as runway repairs, he said this is a new complaint that has surfaced, saying the city was not aware this was a problem until the Dec. 28 letter was received.
He encouraged everyone in attendance Monday as well as all St. Clair and area residents to visit the airport.
“I invite everyone to look at the runway and then travel our city streets and see which is in worse shape,” he said.
Childers earlier has said that the runway is in better condition than every city street, including the recently refurbished and repaved East Springfield Road.
As far as the financial issues, which relate to a separate complaint filed by an airport tenant with the Office of the Inspector General, the aldermen were given copies of airport financial records from 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, which showed the facility lost money in each of those four years. In 2007 and 2008, the same held true.
“These show all our revenue and expenses,” Childers said, adding that the city’s books are audited every year and that the annual audit never has come back with any red flags attached.
“This is already noted by our auditor as separate a fund as it can get,” he said.
Fuchs asked if the FAA is looking for a separate checking account that would cost the city more money, more time and more manpower to oversee and manage.
“That is correct,” Childers said.
Childers and Blum said the city will continue to work with the FAA on satisfying its conditions for closure.
“My recommendation to the board is to once again do what they (FAA) are asking us to do,” the mayor said, “just like we always have done.”
During the meeting, a frustrated Fuchs addressed the handful of pilots who were part of the packed meeting room.
“We’re looking at spending unknown amounts of money to finance a hobby for a few,” he said. “We’re in a position where we are stuck ... and having to use taxpayer money to finance a hobby. ...”
He concluded by saying to the tenants that he didn’t know how “you guys” can file complaints at a federal level “to do this to a city.”
In late August, Blum sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration specifically asking that it allow closure of the 80-acre facility. Closing the airport has been at the top of the mayor’s and aldermen’s priority list since he first took office in 2007.
Blum’s letter asked for a decision by Thanksgiving.
The conclusion of the USDOT letter stated that future discussions will be limited to issues related to the city completing the steps detailed in the letter.
The final St. Clair Regional Airport narrative analysis sent by city officials to the FAA in August stated that “the city of St. Clair once again requests release from all past grant obligations, subject to a requirement to repay the unamortized portion of such grants, and requests closure of St. Clair Regional Airport and authorization to sell the land by sealed bid, subject to a requirement that all proceeds from said sale be provided for disbursement at the direction of the Federal Aviation Administration.”
If that retail expansion does not happen, Blum said the city ultimately may face continued and worsening financial hardships.