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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Sims, Journal staff

Commission, committee members discuss airport plans

Updated: Oct 22, 2023

The Linn County Commission on Monday met with county airport committee members to seek a solution to a facility that is underused and costly to maintain. (Journal file photo)

By Charlene Sims,

MOUND CITY – The Linn County Commissioners met with county Economic Development Director Jessica Hightower and David Fisher and Clarence Easley who are members of the county’s airport committee on Monday, Oct. 16. Hightower is also in charge of the airport for the county.

The meeting was requested by the commissioners to determine the next steps for the airport. Previous ideas considered were whether to sell it and pay penalties for the grants that have been received or to find a fixed base operator (FBO) to operate it.

After putting out a request for proposal for a FBO and receiving no replies, the commission decided to meet with the airport committee.

A FBO is an organization granted the right by an airport to operate at the airport and provide aeronautical services such as fueling, hangaring, tie-down and parking, aircraft rental, aircraft maintenance, flight instruction, and similar services.

County Counselor Gary Thompson provided a brief history at the beginning of the meeting of how the airport originated. He reported how the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) approached the city of Pleasanton with the offer of a grant to build an airport in 2008.

He said that this came at a time when the state thought that it was important to have public airports within 30 to 40 miles of each other.

Former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius had decided that was important because severe flooding in certain areas of the state had prevented deliveries of food and medications for a period of time.

While the airport had to be located in the city, it turned out that the city of Pleasanton did not have the matching funds and could not apply for the grant on its own. So the city partnered with the county, which provided the matching part of the grant. The land was annexed by the city, and the county applied for the actual airport grant.

Later on per agreement, the city signed the airport over to the county.

Easley was critical of how the airport had been managed from the start.

“How did that box of Precision Approach Path Indicator (PAPI) lights end up on county property through a grant?” asked Easley.

First he pointed out the PAPI lights that were purchased with a grant from KDOT of $170,000 with a $30,000 match from the county had never been installed because they basically needed a longer runway to operate correctly. He said that once the PAPI lights guide an airplane down to the runway, there is an issue about the remaining length available for landing.

He said that installation of the PAPI lights would not be possible without extensive engineering from a company like Burns and McDonnell. Because of that, the lights have been in a storage building for years.

Another issue that Easley brought up was the fuel pump.

“Why did we have a gas pump that even gas stations stopped using years ago?” asked Easley. “It’s not digital, who was responsible for that? I don’t think that somebody is here anymore.”

Later in the meeting, Information Technology (IT) Director Chris Martin explained to the commissioners that while this was before he started there, he had information about how this happened.

Martin said that the contractor that was hired to install the pump was reputable but in the process that company was bought by another company that was not quite as reputable.

He said that the county did not find out it was not a digital pump until after the pump was installed.

Martin said the problem has to do with the amount displayed being incorrect, so it is not approved to be used by the state’s weights and measures department. However, he said, the pump itself is still valuable to the county and can be used elsewhere in the county where the readings are not important.

Commission Chair Danny McCullough asked the committee members opinion about the airport.

Can it generate revenue?

Easley said it was the same as he felt about the strip of pavement going through the main streets of Mound City, Pleasanton or Parker. He asked if the street creates or generates a revenue for the city.

“To expect that this 3,000-foot strip will generate revenue? It’s not. It never will,” said Easley.

He said that there had been hopes that people would buy up the 25 lots for $20,000 apiece and put airplanes in hangars there. Those airplanes would be taxed by the county, but that did not happen and it is probably not going to happen, he added.

Airport Manager Jessica Hightower said that eight of the 70-foot-by-70-foot lots had been sold.

Easley pointed out that there are 25 airplanes registered in Linn County, and there used to be 27. They are not in Pleasanton. He explained that nobody wanted to buy the lots.

“I know that you want a FBO, that’s going to be a tough sell to anybody,” stated Easley.

Committee member Fisher said that he believes the airport is an important asset to the county.

“It’s just too bad we haven’t taken the opportunity that we have out there, that asset, to make it grow,” said Fisher. “I think primarily the reason we haven’t is because we haven’t had aviation people responsible. You know, we go out and buy the PAPI system when we really shouldn’t. Or the wrong fuel system, when we really shouldn’t.”

“Somehow we have got to get somebody with aviation knowledge responsible for the airport. So, we’ve tried to do that with the RFP but didn’t generate any interest there,” said Fisher.

Fisher said that the state had given out $11 million in grants last year to airports. They were as small as $5,000 to fix a windsock and as much as $2 million to $3 million to expand an airport.

Later when talking about the fuel pump, Fisher said that 25% of those grants were for fuel pumps.

Jessica Hightower expressed concern that since the county had received one for the fuel pump, it may not be able to get another one for the fuel pump.

Fisher said that he had been advocating for a business plan, so the county knows what to do as the airport plan goes forward, because even though he was an aviation enthusiast he realized that the county could not throw $160,000 in taxes during the last four years when no revenue was coming in.

Commissioner Jason Hightower said he felt like if it was just being used.

Fisher said that the county needed to find a way to get it used. He said industry people he had talked with said don’t stop applying for grants. He asked if there was anyway the county could get around the tax issue.

Thompson said that the portion of the land that is used for a county airport can be exempted. He said the county would have to do a lot split from the rest of the land that is not being used as an airport

Thompson said that the taxes are a big issue. He explained that the county could not file for a tax exempt status as long as the county was selling lots.

Commissioner Jim Johnson summarized that what Fisher was saying is that the county needed to get businesses there so people will use the airport.

“At least, get someone interested in running it,” Fisher said. “I thing we could provide a pretty good lease for somebody to come in, sell fuel, promote the airport within the industry, draw people here, and sell more fuel.”

“I drive by it everyday, and I think I’ve only seen one airplane that wasn’t a crop duster this year,” said McCullough. “My little boys love it, but I would be sitting there an entire year to see one airplane.”

Getting businesses in to the airport

Fisher said that he did not think the county had the knowledge and ability to get businesses into the airport.

“I feel like it’s hard for me to go to the taxpayers and say ‘Hey, you guys, this is what we are spending money on. We’ve lost $160,000, but we are going to keep paying taxes on it,’” said McCullough.

Fisher said he agreed. He said no matter what the county decided to do with it, the property taxes were going to be the greatest hurdle. He said the county was starting out $40,000 a year in the hole.

“And we can’t convert to a Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) airport because we have already sold some lots," said Jason Hightower.

Easley said there was an 847 page manual with FAA requirements. But both Easley and Fisher agree that the runway itself would comply with FAA regulations because it was built to meet FAA specifications.

Fisher presented three options:

• Continue to run the airport, continue to apply for grants including for the business plan, continue to seek a FBO, develop a business plan. But the very first thing should be to address the property tax issue. If the county continues to run it, it should be set up as its own for-profit center instead of being in the general fund. The airport should be in its own category so the commissioners can keep an eye on the profit and loss.

• Sell the immediate property, just around the runway and lots with the provision that the airport remain a public-use airport. There are privately held airports across the country that are for public use.

• Close the airport and sell the ground.

Jessica Hightower pointed out that the airport has to remain a public-access airport until 2029, because Linn County received a grant in 2019 that has that requirement.

If not kept as a public-use airport, the county will have to pay back a prorated amount to the state. The amount for the 2019 grant would be $120,000 and there are grants from 2015 and 2017 that also have the same requirement.

Thompson asked if the county could buy back the lots that have already been sold, would that help in anyway.

Fisher said that might allow the airport to become FAA eligible, and FAA airports were more lucrative. But, he did say, there were a lot of hoops to jump through to become a federal airport.

McCullough said that the only way he would be in favor of not shutting the airport down would be if the county sold off the land around it and made it tax exempt.

My only thing is I am not in favor of spending any tax dollars on it to do anything with it, said McCullough. I would rather shut it down before we had to do anything like that.

Thompson said, “But if you sold off the land maybe you could do something like that with it.”

“What crazes me is that we are spending all these tax dollars on it and losing money, and we have all this industrial land out there that we’re trying to develop it,” said McCullough. “I just don’t understand why we wouldn’t try to use these funds to try to do something that would benefit the entire county.”

“I don’t have an airplane I don’t get to use this thing, I mean it doesn’t do nothing for me,” said McCullough.

Easley said that it appealed to pilots, though.

But, McCullough said, everybody in the entire county is paying for it.

“Everybody is paying for everything when they pay taxes,” said Easley.

Fisher said McCullough’s point was saying that it wasn’t being used, so you have to get to where it’s making money and you will never get there with that $40,000 tax bill.

Is this a service the county wants to provide?

County Clerk David Lamb pointed out another thing that everyone needed to keep in mind is that the county is not a for-profit business. The county needs to manage things and not waste money.

The county is here to provide services, Lamb continued, asking commissioners if an airport was a service they wanted to provide.

“I don’t go and tell people we have an airport to get them to move here,” said McCullough. “I don’t say come to Linn County because we have an airport.”

Lamb said whether the county sold any property or not, they could still do a lot split and get the hay ground off of this property and have it separated to where the county could get an exemption on the airport part.

If the county owns the land and allowed someone to put a business or a restaurant on it, the statute would allow us to have a tax exemption, said Thompson. But, if the county were to put up a restaurant and run it, it can’t have the exemption.

Thompson said the lots would also have to be split off if the county was holding them out for sale but not if they weren’t trying to sell them

The meeting concluded with Jessica Hightower being charged with checking into:

• Whether the county could sell off a portion of the land, like the 77 acres on the east, without paying it back.

• What the county would have to pay back on the grants from 2015 and 2017, along with the 2019 grant, if the county sold off the airport and it was no longer public access.

• If the county could sell the airport with a clause that it had to stay open as a public access airport.

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