A rocky relationship. A rough divorce. A reconciliation.
So is it time to get married again?
In short: Should Payson get back into the airport business?
That’s the question the Payson Regional Airport Authority board will take up Monday at a special 5 p.m. meeting at the Crosswinds Restaurant off Airport Road.
Airport board members have run the airport on a shoestring in the four years since Payson saved itself $100,000 in salaries by leasing the airport to its users.
Now, airport board members say the growth of the airport and the need to build more hangars to generate more money has convinced them they should turn the keys to the runway back over to the town.
The airport authority has already held two meetings with airport users to explain the plan. Given the sometimes-contentious history, the idea evoked mixed reviews from pilots.
“The airport authority does not have the bonding capacity,” said board president Jon Barber. “We are severely restricted on being able to borrow money” to build the roughly 15 new hangars the airport needs to boost revenue.
Airport manager Beth Myers said “there’s absolutely nothing wrong — this is for the good of the airport. We can’t do anything to develop the airport. The town can.”
Payson Town Councilor Michael Hughes said that if the airport authority approves the plan on Monday, the council could take up the proposal later this month.
Hughes said the proposal under discussion calls for converting the existing airport board into a town commission, hiring Myers as a town employee and hiring an additional town worker to spend half the time maintaining the runways and grounds and the other half on other town facilities.
Hughes said the turnover would likely not cost the town any extra money. The airport brings in $150,000 to $170,000 in various fees paid by people with planes based at the airport. That includes $70,000 the town pays the airport authority to lease land on which the town maintenance yard stands. The money for that payment comes from an Arizona Department of Transportation grant, which expires in 2019. The town must spend that $70,000 on the airport, according to the terms of the grant.
“Basically, it’s not going to cost the town anything extra,” said Hughes.
Hughes said the lease with the airport authority has always raised complicated legal questions, since the town still owns the facility and retains legal liability.
Jim Garner commented, “the simple bottom line is, everything you’re proposing happened here for 20 years on this airport. And it didn’t work.”
“OK. That’s history,” said board member Dick Garmon.
“That doesn’t make any difference ...” said Garner. “Sure it does,” said Garmon.
“You can’t repeat the same thing and expect it to work.”
Some people who have attended the two public sessions have raised questions about getting hitched to the town again.
Airport board members say that the airport has grown and that town officials have promised to give the airport commission adequate authority to run the facility and to also implement the recently completed, $10 million master plan, which would allow the airport to double landings by adding a terminal, restaurant, hangars and expanded runway.
The Federal Aviation Authority would likely foot most of the bill for that expansion.
Myers said the airport currently runs a roughly $60,000 annually surplus. However, the airport will soon have to start spending $40,000 annually to maintain the runways.
Barber said that the airport currently gets a big chunk of its revenue from hangar space rented to local plane owners. The airport currently has 19 hangars, but could immediately rent 15 more.
He said the airport authority would have a hard time borrowing the money to build the new hangars, since it doesn’t actually own the land on which the hangars sit.
Some people who spoke at the public meetings disagreed, however, saying that other independent airport authorities manage to set up financial structures that allow them to borrow money to build hangars secured by the likely revenue the hangars would bring in.
Hughes said since the constriction of loans, money for such arrangements has largely dried up. As a result, the airport might need the town’s ability to sell bonds and raise money to build the facilities.
Some participants at the previous meetings questioned whether the town would pay enough attention to the airport. Some suggested the town might even divert money for airport fees to pay for other town needs.
“It was a mess,” said Garner about the previous town-based management system.
“We never got anything done at this airport, except things that didn’t need to be done and were a waste of money. And then the town wanted to raise all the rates to pay for that waste of money.
“The only reason that PRAA has money in the bank is because we did two things. Number one, we made sure everybody got paid a fair amount and then we made sure that the money was wisely spent. That’s the reason we make a profit and the town had a $100,000-a-year deficit. And that’s exactly what you’re going back to and that’s exactly what’s going to happen.”
The area surrounding the airport now figures prominently in the town’s plans for the future. A group of private landowners recently completed a land exchange with the federal government and acquired 220 acres of land adjacent to the airport.
The town council recently approved a rezoning for the area that ensures that most of the available land in town for industrial development and apartments will lie atop the mesa near the airport.