After years of struggle and months of debate, the Payson Airport Regional Authority on Wednesday voted to ask the town to take over the airport.
The airport board listened to a strong pitch for that move from Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, then swept aside a plea from a group of pilots to further delay the decision.
“I think I’m ready to take the risk” of returning the airport to the town’s control, said Jim Hunt, a retired Air Force general who serves on the board.
Evans urged the independent board that
manages the town-owned airport under a lease agreement to return full authority to Payson, so the town could develop the airport, saying the facility was Payson’s “front door.”
“The airport has to be a cornerstone for future development of the whole region,” said Evans, insisting that the independent airport authority lacks the manpower and the resources to fully develop the airport.
However, a dozen pilots and other airport users spent three months on a study that urged the airport board to retain day-to-day operational control but renegotiate the lease to give the town authority over new facilities.
“It is premature to make the irreversible decision today that dissolves the PRAA
because of a perceived financial crisis that will not occur until eight years into the future, if at all,” the group concluded in a report submitted to the board earlier this month. “
“Disappointed is probably a good word to us,” said Robert Henley, who worked with the dissident airport user’s group. “We put a good effort into it, but other than a presentation before the PRAA board there was no discussion of our proposal. We’d like our view to at least be discussed.”
The group concluded that dissolving the lease would force the airport to “revert to the failed management model from the pre-PRAA days Anyone involved in or observing airport matters prior to three years ago remembers how conflicted and controversial those pre-PRAA days were.”
The vote sets in motion a chain of events likely to extend over the next several months.
“Keep in mind, this is only the first step in the process,” said PRAA President Jon Barber.
The proposed revision of the lease agreement will likely go before the Payson council in November, followed by several public hearings.
The vote caps a confusing and sometimes contentious process, which dates back to the Payson council’s decision to turn over management of the airport to an independent board, appointed by the council. The town continued to own the airport and remained legally responsible for administration of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grants that have paid for most of the facilities there. However, creating the PRAA resolved a series of complaints by pilots and saved some $100,000 in staffing costs.
The PRAA enlisted squads of volunteers to administer and maintain the airport, winning the support of most airport users. However, the loosely organized, independent airport board came into intermittent conflict with the town council over various provisions of the lease agreement.
Two years ago, the relations between the airport board and the town council hit a high point when the two groups agreed on a five-year, $10 million master plan that would enable the airport to double takeoffs and landings, build a terminal, add hangars and build a new restaurant. The airport board hoped to land federal grants to cover 95 percent of the cost of the proposed improvements.
The airport injects about $20 million annually into the local economy and current operations consist of about 40,000 takeoffs and landings. About 100 pilots park their airplanes at the airport long-term.
However, the board has made little progress in implementing that master plan in the past two years, as the recession dried up FAA grants.
Meanwhile, the council found itself mediating a dispute about hangar rentals that split the airport board, prompting the ouster of several board members.
Prior to this week, the arguments in favor of returning control of the airport to the town revolved mostly around legal issues — including the difficulties the airport authority might face in floating bonds to build new facilities like additional hangars and a terminal. In addition, town officials said they worried about Payson’s legal responsibility for millions in federal grants if the town lacked operational and budget control of the airport. Moreover, supporters of the handover said the airport could face significant financial problems in a year when the town’s agreement to lease land for a town maintenance yard would expire.
The users group addressed those objections in their report, citing other independent authorities, like the one that runs the Sedona Airport, which has worked out ways to borrow money to build revenue-generating facilities like hangars.
However, on Wednesday, Mayor Evans raised much larger issues, saying the airport could foster economic development, but only if included as part of a master plan that included major initiatives like building a university campus here.
“The airport board has the need to include a dozen major players. We want to have an airport that is stronger and better than ever before. But we have created a situation in which one body has control (the PRAA) and a different body has responsibility (Payson). We have to bring this together so it makes sense.”
Evans suggested that if the airport authority board insisted on retaining control and sticking to the lease agreement, the town would investigate ways to enforce provisions of the existing lease, which he said the board had violated in the past.
After Evans left, Hunt summed up the view that ultimately won the unanimous support of the board.