Airport panel, JPs attempt to clear air
The contentious relationship between the Carroll County Airport Commission and the county’s quorum court took center stage at the commission’s monthly meeting on Friday.
Several members of the quorum court attended the meeting — along with County Judge Sam Barr and several other county officials — to clear the air about recent tension centered on the county’s 2019 appropriation to the commission.
The commission, whose purpose is to manage the county-owned airport, operates in a mostly autonomous fashion — although its members are appointed by the county judge and it relies on funding from the county to help pay operational costs.
Some airport commissioners have expressed frustration about what they have described as the lack of a long-term commitment from the quorum court. That frustration increased when the court’s joint budget and finance committee initially recommended appropriating
$40,000 to the airport for 2019 — $20,000 less than the commission requested. The committee later approved a proposal by District 1 Justice of the Peace Jack Deaton to increase the appropriation to $50,000 while also forgiving $10,000 of the remaining $19,000 balance owed on a loan that the county made to the airport commission in 2012.
That didn’t seem to satisfy some of the commissioners, who met in a special session on Dec. 7.
“Commissioners articulated disappointment and cited the QC’s lack of respect, understanding of the severity of the situation, FAA and state regulations and code and disregarding for the airport regarding its significant economic impact and importance to the taxpayers of the county,” according to the minutes from the Dec. 7 meeting, which were approved without discussion at Friday’s meeting. “Nor do they understand, or recognize, the significant financial, resource impact and lengthy expensive process on the county if the Commission resigns and/or the county elects to close the airport.”
During the Dec. 7 meeting, commissioner Morris Pate phoned Barr and asked him to come and join the meeting, according to the minutes. Barr responded that he was unable to do so but committed to attend Friday’s meeting.
Barr in turn asked JPs to attend Friday’s meeting as well.
In a Dec. 13 email that listed nearly 100 recipients, airport manager Michael Pfeifer described Friday’s meeting as “The K4M1 Airport Commissioner’s latest (and LAST?) attempt at having the Carroll County Judge and Quorum Court JPs get on board or prepare for a fiasco…. .”
The subject line in Pfeifer’s email was “K4M1 Showdown With County Judge.” K4M1 is the airport code assigned to the Carroll County Airport.
Pfeifer, who did not attend Friday’s meeting after having surgery that morning, had sent a similar email on Nov. 19. That email, which listed 17 recipients, bore the subject line: “Potential Closure of Carroll County Airport.”
Commissioner Sandy Martin also alluded to the potential closure of the airport in a Nov. 21 email that was sent to 30 recipients including quorum court members. In that email, Martin urged JPs to consider meeting the commission’s full funding request and hinted that the county would face a financial liability if the airport is closed.
“Consider the millions of dollars already invested in the airport and the cost and liability to the county should the airport close or cease operation,” Martin wrote.
Martin also had vowed to resign if the quorum court did not commit to appropriating $60,000 to the airport for each of the next three years.
At Friday’s meeting, JPs said they took such communications as a threat.
“What threat have we made?” asked commissioner Chase Tressler. “What is the threat I keep hearing about?”
“The threat came from the fact that if you all don’t get your way, the commission’s gonna resign,” said District 4 JP Marty Johnson. “Tell me I’m wrong on that. For $10,000.”
“No, you’re wrong,” responded Tressler. “Because one person can’t speak for a commission. Now, the commission member you might have been talking to might have said they’d resign. I didn’t say I’d resign. I know several that did not.”
“I believe you’re referring to the quote that I said, if we don’t get a commitment from the county, I would seriously consider resigning,” Martin said. “I said that, because of the frustration that we were feeling. That wasn’t a threat. That was my option on how to deal with my frustration.”
“I understand that,” said Johnson. “And the whole thing boils down to, it’s not been the communication. Nobody’s communicated well. Y’all feel like you’re stepchildren or whatever. You’re on the same playing field with every other department. You’ve got your own stuff. There’s only so much pie. You cut it up as much as you can. We cut budgets on everybody so we could give everybody a raise that they had not had. So I don’t see, you know, I see your point about communication, but I do not see getting this wound up and torqued about what boils down to $10,000.”
Johnson said that if the airport commission needs a supplemental appropriation from the quorum court as the year goes on, it can ask for one. Martin said the commission has done that each of the past three years, and been denied each time.
“Please appreciate from our standpoint, the consistency of how we’ve been ignored,” she said.
“You’re not the only entity that has come back and asked for money the last three years that didn’t get it,” Johnson said. “You’re no different, we don’t treat you any differently than we treat everybody else.”
Earlier in the meeting, District 7 JP Noreen Watson explained that part of the reason the airport’s funding request initially wasn’t fully met was that the budget committee wanted to implement salary adjustments for some county employees to bring their pay more in line with the average for employees performing the same duties in other Arkansas counties. Those salary adjustments totaled about $20,000, Watson said, and the budget committee initially opted to take that money from the airport’s appropriation.
“I believe people are more important than planes,” Watson said. “Not that planes are not important, but I believe people are more important than planes.”
However, Watson said the ultimate decision to appropriate $50,000 to the airport and forgive $10,000 in debt in essence equated to a $60,000 appropriation.
Watson noted that the airport’s two significant sources of revenue are fuel sales and hangar leases. She said that she had analyzed those numbers and determined that to generate an additional $10,000 in revenue, the commission would need to raise its fuel prices by 10 percent and its hangar lease rates by 12 percent. She also noted a 2002 ordinance that she says requires the hangar lease rates to be increased each year. Watson said the local lease rates are much lower than those at other airports in the region.
“Most of the airports are full, so it’s kind of a seller’s market for your leasing, so you should be able to make some increases that would be reasonable,” she said.
Barr spoke briefly, pointing that out he is an Air Force veteran and once served on the airport commission. He said he has tried to be a friend to the airport.
“Every time you all have ever asked me to do anything for you, I’ve done it,” he said. “I’ve graded your roads that you needed. I’ve graded your snow that you needed. If you need anything else that’s in my power, I will do it for you. But several years ago, the quorum court passed an ordinance for a budget committee. I don’t know how you all feel about it, but I think they’re the lawmakers for the county. So I accept that and I don’t bug them about it. I can see where you all need some more money; I can see where all of us need more money. But we need to be a family and try to get along.”
Barr noted that the airport has seen tremendous improvements and JPs acknowledged that the current commission has done a good job of managing the facility.
“You all have done an excellent job,” Barr said. “But to be able for me to give you any more money, other than some in-kind work or something, I can’t.”
Martin thanked Barr for his willingness to help the airport.
“I think it’s safe to say, nobody wants the airport to close down at all,” she said. “… And I think I can speak safely that no one on this commission really wants to resign. We’ve worked too hard. We’re too proud.”
She said the commission had been working with former District 3 JP Lamont Richie, who resigned in October, to develop a long-term agreement to work with county government.
“The crux of this matter is not so much money,” she said. “It’s about the relationship … and it’s about the commitment the county has to the airport. … I think some of the age-old resentment is that there is a feeling by the quorum court that they don’t control anything here. The fact of the matter is, if you want a healthy family relationship that shouldn’t even come up, at all.”