Airport Users Not Sure They Trust Town

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Concerned that it had violated its own procedures and voted illegally, the Payson Regional Airport Authority (PRAA) board Monday called a second meeting and a second vote to put off for at least three months a decision on turning the airport back over to the town of Payson.

Board members seemed abashed by the need to vote over again, given the complexity and persistence of the questions about the board’s procedures and its relationship to the town — and to the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We’re just a volunteer board,” explained Jon Barber president of PRAA at the hastily called Monday meeting.

“We’ve only had to submit a balance sheet to the town,” said Dick Gamon treasurer of PRAA.

“Last week’s motion wasn’t legal because it wasn’t on the agenda,” said Jim Hunt, a PRAA board member.

The board once again decided to set up a committee of airport users to investigate the pros and cons of returning the airport to the town.

Payson set up the airport authority four years ago to save about $100,000 in personnel costs and improve relationships with the airport users. The town, however, retained ownership of the airport and remains responsible for millions in FAA grants that have paid for key upgrades.

Now, the board and the town are exploring once again reversing the relationship, driven by concerns about whether the PRAA can borrow money to build more hangars and other money-making improvements if it doesn’t actually own the land.

Moreover, town officials have raised questions about Payson’s liability for FAA grants the airport authority spends, but for which the town remains responsible.

Town officials and airport board members had tentatively negotiated an arrangement for the town to take the airport back, appoint the PRAA board as an advisory commission and make the current airport manager a town employee.

The plan also called for hiring a new maintenance worker, who would spend half of his time on the airport and the rest on other town facilities.

However, a swarm of questions from pilots prompted the PRAA board to back away from the plan and set up a committee to consider the options.

A series of meetings revealed that the airport users don’t trust the town will manage the airport to their expectations.

The committee will ponder ways to deal with a flock of airport problems, including the need to boost spending on runway maintenance, how to win and administer federal grants needed to widen the runway and separate takeoffs and landings so the airport can handle larger planes, how to build more hangars to increase revenues and the impact of the looming end to a $70,000 per year state grant.

Airport users “just want to take off and land, gas up and house their planes. They like how we’ve managed the airport,” said Barber.

However, Payson Assistant Town Manager LaRon Garrett said the town needs more control to protect itself from legal liability. The town “doesn’t have any say over how PRAA manages (federal) grant money, but we’ve got to pay it back if anything goes wrong.”

The discussion at the Monday meeting focused on the problem of administering the grants and meeting the requirements for audits, public meetings and other legal responsibilities.

The previous meeting with airport users focused more on the concerns raised by board members with how the airport authority could borrow money to build new hangars and other facilities under the terms of the current lease, in which the town owns the airport but the airport authority runs it — with little input from the town.

When times were good and the money rolled in, a check could solve just about any problem. Now, with budgets alarmingly shrinking, accountability is the name of the game, said board members.

They said the move to return responsibility to the town stemmed from pressure from the FAA and the Arizona Department of Transportation to account for the spending of public funds.

That pressure exposed a weak link in the relationship between the town and PRAA:  the town has no authority to hold PRAA responsible for how it spends public funds, but the town has all the responsibility if the money gets spent inappropriately, said Garrett.

At Monday’s meeting, PRAA officially voted to give concerned citizens three months to come up with an alternative plan to giving control of the airport back to the town. 

At the same time, the board voted to table the vote for three months to amend the lease with the town.

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