Councilvotes to pursue federal funding for airport

Published on Thu, Dec 21, 2006 by ara Nelson

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Council votes to pursue federal funding for airport

By Tara Nelson

Blaine City Council voted 4-3 Monday to set the ball rolling to receive federal funding for improvements to the Blaine municipal airport, regardless of whether those plans are actually executed during upcoming years.

In a 4-3 vote, council members approved an amendment to a six-month moratorium that would allow the city to apply for $450,000 in federal grants for a $20 million airport expansion project that includes improvements such as a runway expansion, new hanger space, new lighting and global positioning equipment to be installed over the next 15 years.

During their regular December 11 meeting, council had voted 4-3 to approve a moratorium against taking any action toward the implementation of the city’s airport master plan. In the meantime, the council is asking the Port of Bellingham to outline possible development proposals for the 34-acre airport property.

Monday’s amendment, however, would still allow the council to meet a December 27 filing deadline for 2007 legislative funding applications, should they decide to go ahead with the improvement projects.

Council member Bruce Wolf said the measure was needed so the city would not incur another year of interest charges on $450,000 owed to the city’s general fund that was used to pay debt relating to the Carruther’s property acquisition. The acceptance of the $450,000 in federal non-primary entitlement grants would settle that debt, he said.
“This would take us out of this budgetary crisis we’re in right now,” he said. “The grants will be allocated in June which is, incidentally, the time when this moratorium will be finished and that’s when the council will hopefully make the final decision. And I want that to be our final decision because, in many ways, the reason we’re in this budget crisis right now is because of the council’s indecisiveness.”
He added that merely filing the application for 2007 federal funding would not obligate the city unless it accepted those grants later in the year.

“My understanding is that we have absolutely no commitment to the FAA whatsoever unless we accept these grants, so applying for these grants does not produce any commitment whatsoever,” he said.
Blaine airport commission chair Doug Fenton agreed.

“I think it would be a shame to waste $50,000 or $60,000 in interest money this year,” he said. “We should at least put ourselves in a position where we could accept grants from the FAA.

“If, for example, the overtures to the port are not successful, and we don’t have another alternative and you decide you want to go ahead with the master plan, it would be a terrible shame to waste that money by waiting an extra year.”

Fenton said the city has already accumulated three year’s worth of non-primary entitlement grants, or grants that are available to smaller, regional airports, in the amount of $450,000 and has plans to apply for another $900,000 in unused entitlement funds from other small airports for a total of $1.3 million for the 2007 year.

“If we’re successful in getting all of that, it will go a long way toward putting the airport on the right path,” he said. “And if you’re looking for $600,000 in the general reserve, the airport owes the general fund some $450,000 as of right now and if we pay all of that back, your general fund reserve would be back on target with perhaps enough to buy a new police car.”

Council members Wolf, Ken Ely, Mike Myers and Charlie Hawkins approved the amendment.

Council members Jason Overstreet, Bonnie Onyon and John Liebert voted no, and said they were concerned about sending a message of indecisiveness to the public.

“If we were to be doing anything, we might be sending another message that we’ve gone back and forth and back and forth and confused the FAA and our own people,” said Liebert.

Onyon agreed, although she later added that those council members who have decided the master plan was not the right choice would not vote to apply for grant funding even if the port agrees the city should keep the airport.

Overstreet had also stated in the December 11 meeting that even if the port’s proposal favored an airport expansion, he would continue to vote against any improvement projects.

Blaine resident Scott Dodd asked the council if the city would still be financially obligated if it took the money and then decided to close the airport.

“I was here during the conference call and FAA official Mary Vargas said no way,” he said.

Fenton responded that the city would, indeed, be perpetually obligated with regards to property acquisition and that he was in the process of clarifying obligations for other types of grants for council in upcoming months.

Dennis Hill, a staunch airport opponent, asked the council if they had had the information they now have, would they have made the same decision to keep the airport.

“If you guys knew what you know now, how would you have voted?” he said. “You voted on the assumption there would be $16 million there. What we know now is that $16 million is not going to be there.

“Not only that, but the FAA pointed out that if we take any money that applies to land acquisition we would be obligated to that agency for at least 20 years.”

Mayor Mike Myers reprimanded Hill, asking him to return to his seat and telling the audience it was not a public hearing, after which several audience members who were visibly annoyed stomped out of the meeting.

The airport master plan was approved by the Federal Aviation Administration earlier this year and approved 4-3 by the council in October.