Airport Takeover Advances

Payson council now poised to appoint airport commission

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The Payson Council tonight will appoint a brand new Airport Commission as it moves to resume management of the Payson Regional Airport.

Last week, the council took the first step in the sometimes-controversial effort to ease the airport’s financial problems and lay the groundwork for its expansion by agreeing to take over operations, despite the objections of some pilots and other airport users.

At a special meeting tonight at 5:30, the council is scheduled approve contracts and ordinances to set the takeover in motion, hoping to finish the transition by February.

The town staff has recommended appointments to the new airport commission, based on negotiations with the old, private, non-profit Payson Regional Airport Authority (PRAA). The town turned over the airport to that group five years ago to save $100,000 in costs and placate unhappy pilots.

If the council accepts the staff recommendation, the new airport commission members would include Jon Barber, Jim Hunt and Dick Garman, all members of the PRAA board. Recommendations also include Bill Day, Dan Nyhus, Raymond Law and Robert Henley, who headed up the airport user study group that fought to prevent the takeover.

Some of those airport users raised a final round of objections to the takeover last week, insisting that the volunteer group that has run the airport for the past four years has provided excellent service at a cost much lower than the town did.

Marie Fasano attempted to rebut suggestions an independent airport authority couldn’t finance improvements and cooperate with the Federal Aviation Authority, as some have suggested. She noted that larger airports in Sedona, Kingman, Yuma and Tucson all operate through four years has provided excellent service at a cost much lower than the town did.

Marie Fasano attempted to rebut suggestions an independent airport authority couldn’t finance improvements and cooperate with the Federal Aviation Authority, as some have suggested. She noted that larger airports in Sedona, Kingman, Yuma and Tucson all operate through contracts with private, nonprofit groups. She said airport users didn’t even know the airport board was negotiating with the town for the past year.

“We didn’t know anything was going on,” she said. “I feel the concept of the PRAA was well intentioned. They have worked very hard and very diligently.”

Furthermore, she said that 16 people applied for slots on the new commission, but the process of selecting the board members remained opaque.

However, most of the other speakers at last week’s hearing before the council spoke in favor of the turnover, including several PRAA board members.

Jon Barber, the current PRAA chairman, said a legal opinion suggesting the authority had to operate in accordance with the state’s open meeting law and other rules made it difficult to continue — since the board members served on committees and did a lot of the work of running the airport.

“That was a big hindrance to running the day-to-day operations: Any time you create a committee you can’t talk except in a meeting. Almost all the other airport authorities are big enough to hire a staff” to manage those daily tasks.

He said the board had trouble borrowing money to build hangars to generate additional revenue and faced a financial crisis in 2010 when the town’s $75,000 annually lease for a vehicle maintenance yard on airport property expired.

The PRAA recently adopted a $10 million expansion plan to accommodate a projected doubling in landings as Payson grew, which would have included a terminal, more hangars and a new restaurant.

“We could maybe get by for the next eight years, but when 2019 comes around, we’re broke. When we look at the hard facts, in order for the airport to grow — PRAA can’t do it. The bottom line is that it’s in your hands no matter what,” Barber told the council.

PRAA board member and proposed commission member Jim Gardner questioned putting so many members of the airport authority on the new airport commission. “If they didn’t resolve these problems serving on the airport authority board, then why put them in the position of advising the town council?”

Town Attorney Tim Wright said that the recommendation on who the council should appoint to the airport commission emerged from the negotiations with the PRAA.

That included a provision in the resolution establishing the airport commission to exempt members from a town rule barring anyone from serving on more than one town board or commission at a time.

The provision prompted an inconclusive council debate on whether to grant that exemption, since one of the proposed commission members already serves on another town advisory body.

The new ground rules for the airport commission also specify that no more than two members of the commission can have leases with the airport for things like hangars or the restaurant. However, any member of the commission can lease a tie-down or hangar space for an airplane, which includes many of the pilots in town.

In the end, last week the town council simply listened to comments at the open public hearing.

However, tonight the council will take action on a number of issues — including appointing the members of the airport commission.

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