Up in the Air?
“We need your help.”
Those were the words spoken by Bruce Murphy, Chairman of the McCreary County Airport Board during Thursday night’s Fiscal Court meeting.
Members of the Airport Board were on hand to ask the Fiscal Court for a little over $17,000 in matching funds to complete a $660,000 resurfacing project on the 20-plus year old runway.
But his request was met with little support as the Fiscal Court stated they did not have the excess funding available at this time to allocate to the project.
Murphy explained that if the Board could not come up with the local match funding, they would have to consider imposing a tax or risk shutting down the airfield.
Murphy said the state has declared the runway project an emergency, meaning it is considered at a critical level. If not completed Federal Aviation Administration Entitlement funds will be lost, and the airport could loose its status.
“Once it is closed, it’s closed,” he said.
Additionally, he explained, if the airport is closed, it can not be used for other purposes for 25 years due to the fact that federal money was spent on improvements.
If the County is not able to help secure the funding to complete the grant, Murphy said an option would be to impose a tax on property in the county.
The Airport is considered a special taxing district, and by law could impose an Ad Valorem tax, similar to the Library, Conservation District or local fire departments.
“We didn’t want a tax,” Murphy told the Court. “We wanted to be an essential element for McCreary County to attract business.”
While the Fiscal Court agreed the airport was something that adds to the County, they were concerned about where the funding could come from, especially at the end of the fiscal year.
“I don’t know where we can cut $17,000,” Magistrate Roger Phillips said.
“I can see the future benefit, but I don’t see, at this time, having the money to do it,” Magistrate O.L. Perry echoed. “For future economic development, we do need the airport.”
Magistrate Duston Baird, whose district contains the airport, stated he planned to check with the Department of Local Government to see if he could allocate some of the road funds from his district into the project. It is unlikely that such a request would be granted, however.
Judge Executive Doug Stephens stated he could not see the Court committing to funding the airport, but said they could “see what they could do.”
When the Board first applied for the grant, Murphy explained, the matching funds were available, but an unexpected expense of purchasing fuel as part of the new fueling system installation caused a set back.
The Board thought they needed to purchase only 500 gallons of fuel to test the tank, but discovered they were required to purchase 4,000 gallons, costing $20,000 – wiping out the money set aside for the grant.
The airport began operations in 1968 after the Airport Board was established in December of the previous year. Murphy says the airport has operated for over the past 47 years with minimal financial assistance from the county.
“To my knowledge, the airport has not received one penny of local taxpayer money,” he said.
Now sitting on 163 acres in Pine Knot, the airport started a lot smaller.
Murphy said the initial property was owned by the U.S. Forest Service and leased to the Board.
Local businessman D.H. Campbell worked out a deal with the Forest Service to trade some of his privately held property in exchange for the airport land, and well as some cash considerations.
That money was invested in certificates of deposit, and the operating cost of the airport was funded off the interest and the income from two gas wells on the property. Also, it was used to help fund over one million dollars worth of projects over the past nine years.
The airport derives the majority of it’s funding through the income off the wells and the hangar rental from five aircraft housed at the field.
Much of the maintenance at the field is done by the Board members themselves; donating thousands of hours over the years to mow the field and keep the property operational.
He stated the airfield sees about 20 landings and takeoffs from the field each month from various entities.
“Some of our more frequent users are the U.S. Marshall’s Service, who transports some prisoners to and from USP McCreary, the Kentucky National Guard for marijuana interdiction/eradication efforts, the McCreary County Ambulance Service for patient air transport, the Kentucky Division of Forestry/U.S. Forest Service for fire suppression and KCTCS for pilot training,” Murphy said.
Additionally, he pointed out, local businesses, such as Dollar General, Kentucky Hardwoods, Citipower, Outdoor Venture and others have used the landing strip.
Murphy said the improvements, such as the installation of lights on the runway, a beacon and a fueling station have benefitted the airport but also increased the costs, and the Board can no longer afford the day to day operation without additional funding.
“We have less than a year’s operating money,” he said.
The runway resurfacing project, which is ready to begin as soon as the payment is made, will completely seal up cracks in the existing surface, and place 1.5 inches of new surface on the runway. The runway was first paved in the 1990’s and the original surface is still in use.
The runway project is the first step towards a larger plan for improving the airfield.
“We have accomplished a lot,” Murphy said. “There is a lot more to be accomplished.
The Board has additional plans for improving the airfield, including adding an extra 1,000 feet to the runway, making it more viable for aircraft to use the strip.
According to information provided by the Airport Board, Over $4 million in federal funding and nearly $300,000 in state funding are expected over the next three years to work on future projects, but the County would have to contribute about $200,000 in local match over the years – about five percent of the total funding.
“In all likelihood we are going to need some kind of ongoing support,” Murphy told the Court.
Murphy stated less than one percent of the Occupational Tax revenues could be allocated to the airport, which would allow them to continue operations and avoid levying a tax.