By Ralph Echtinaw
Supervisors of Pine River and Arcada townships sent letters to the Gratiot Community Airport Authority announcing intent to withdraw from that organization as of March 31.
“Ten years ago the authority was formed to stave off the potential loss of the community resource due to lack of available funding,” wrote Pine River Township Superintendent Kevin Beeson. “Pine River Township voted to join the authority as a means to provide funding support. We are pleased to see that the ‘lost decade’ is behind us. Pine River Township continues to support the need for a community airport servicing the county, but we know that the time has come for its funding to be supported more equitably by all taxpayers of Gratiot County.”
Arcada Township Supervisor Doug Merchant’s letter was shorter. “At this time we feel that Gratiot County should fully fund the Gratiot Community Airport due to increased revenues from within the county,” he wrote.
The townships have given $4,000 a year each to the airport authority since 2012. Other annual contributions to the authority come from Alma ($26,000), Gratiot County ($26,000), St. Louis ($4,000) and Ithaca ($4,000).
Airport revenue for fiscal year 2019 is expected to be $148,000. Of that amount, $68,000 comes from the cities, township and Gratiot County, as detailed above. The rest comes from hangar rentals, land leases, fees and grants.
The Airport Authority also gets $150,000 a year from the federal government for capital improvements.
But leaving the Airport Authority is a bit like checking out of the Hotel California. Recent capital improvements such as repaved runways, a new landing system and new doors and roof on the corporate hangar were paid for largely with federal money that comes with strings attached.
The Airport Authority (and by extension the member cities and townships that give it money) is responsible for maintenance of the assets and to keep them operational until the grant agreement expires. If airport closed, or one of the assets ceased operation before the end of the grant agreement, there are “stranded costs,” said Airport Authority staff member Aeric Ripley, which would have to be paid back to the federal and state governments.
So leaving the Airport Authority becomes more complex, and the townships may not be able to walk away without compensating the authority for the risk that the airport will close, or one of the assets ceases operation.
Furthermore, a two-thirds majority of the six-member Airport Authority must approve any party’s separation. So Pine River and Arcada townships must convince two of the remaining four Airport Authority members to approve their separation.
The Airport Authority tabled the Pine River Township request on Thursday, Feb. 21, “so that a subcommittee could look into the county and Greater Gratiot Development potentially taking on a larger share of the funding,” said County Commissioner Tim Lambrecht, who represents Gratiot County on the Airport Authority. “Right now the taxpayers in those entities contributing are paying twice, which really isn’t fair considering that the airport benefits people and companies throughout the county.”
Arcada Township “did not have all their paperwork in order to formally withdraw,” Lambrecht said via email.
County Commissioner Chuck Murphy of Alma had this to say via email: “I believe Gratiot County has been expecting some of this. There’s a commitment to find some new funding sources for the airport. There’s been discussion of possibly putting in solar panels to help cover the cost there and looking at other options. We feel that the airport is very important to Gratiot County. Greater Gratiot Development says it’s a big selling point for them to bring businesses to the county and growing businesses in the county.”
The airport is located at 3999 W. Seaman Road, between Alma and Ithaca. It has a 5,000 foot east-west primary runway and a 3,200 foot north-south runway. The runways can handle commercial aircraft and small jets.
Three Point Aviation LLC is the Fixed Base Operator at the airport and handles the day-to-day operations.
The big headache for Three Point Aviation now is that the self-serve fuel tank for propeller-driven aircraft has been shut down on account of a leak, Ripley said. A fuel truck is parked at the airport to service aircraft, but it takes two people to operate. So fueling of propeller aircraft is limited to working hours.
Ripley would like to replace the more than 30-year-old tank (along with the equally old jet fuel tank) as soon as possible, but the Federal Aviation Administration insists that several other jobs be done first. These include cutting down trees to accommodate a lower landing approach path, remove a hutch that was used for the old landing system, test runway lights and have a new Airport Layout Plan made (a $75,000 item).
Ripley hopes to get busy on the tree cutting this spring. “The trees that will be cut down are on airport property,” he said via email. “The trees on property the airport has approach easements with will be topped, unless the property owner would rather have the tree cut down. I do not have a number, but we are doing more than what is required right now for the airport approaches. The plan is not to have to deal with any trees for the next 20 years at the airport.”
Once that is taken care of, along with everything else on the FAA’s list, the fuel tanks can be replaced.
The Airport Authority next meets at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 21, in Alma City Hall.