City/County airport negotiations continue

City/County airport negotiations continue
April 28
05:45 2016
Photo by Todd Luck
City Council Member Robert Clark speaks in front of the Airport Commission of Forsyth County on Monday, April 25 as Airport Commissioners Thomas McKim and Ted Kaplan listen.



Forsyth County commissioners passed a resolution asking state lawmakers to exempt local governments from stormwater fees and the Airport Commission heard a new proposal from City Council Member Robert Clark on Monday, April 25.

Stormwater fees at the Smith Reynolds Airport, which is owned by the County, have been a source of tension between city and county governments for months.  The airport asked the City to exempt its runways and taxiways from fees last year but the item is still in committee. According to airport officials, the $118,000 it spends in annual stormwater fees could be used to leverage money from state and federal government for capital projects at the airport to attract more business.

The Airport Commission, which runs the airport, voted in March to ask the County to seek de-annexation of the airport from the city as a solution to the problem. County Commissioners mentioned the idea to state lawmakers last week who urged them to find a local solution with the City instead.

Clark’s airport compromise

Clark presented his own potential compromise to the Airport Commission during its monthly meeting. His proposal, which he had yet to run by his City Council colleagues, involved de-annexing just the runways, taxiways and a small plane parking area, while leaving buildings and the surrounding land in the city. This “split the baby in half” solution would cut stormwater fees in half and was meant to open dialog between the City and County.

“I do think it’s important to preserve the relationship between the City and County,” said Clark, who represents the West Ward and is the sole Republican on the council.

The airport commissioners welcomed the idea.

“On the surface this is a very, very good opening,” said County Commissioner Ted Kaplan, who sits on the Airport Commission.

Airport Commission Chair Scott Piper also felt the proposal was getting them close to where they wanted to be. However, airport commissioners said they felt it only addressed part of the problem. Other airports in the state, such as Piedmont International Airport near Greensboro, tend to be located outside city limits, thus planes don’t pay city property tax. This makes leasing a hanger at Smith Reynolds much more expensive than its competitors. For example, plane owners pay 42 percent less property tax at PTI. Airport officials say they want to “level the playing field” so Smith Reynolds can compete. The City collects approximately $294,000 annually in personal property taxes from Smith Reynolds tenants.

After the meeting, Kaplan met with Clark and City Council Members DD Adams and Jeff MacIntosh, who were also in attendance, behind closed doors. Kaplan and Clark said afterwards they felt progress is being made on a possible agreement and that the matter is being worked on now by City and County staff to come up with a more concrete proposal to present to their colleagues.

Even if county commissioners and City Council approved it, any de-annexation would require legislation that would have to be passed by the General Assembly. Clark’s proposal is just one of several on the table. The City has drafted a resolution for the City and County to each give up to $100,000 a year in matching funds to help the airport secure state and federal funds for capital improvements. City Council public works committee is also considering stormwater credits for businesses that make structural improvements to reduce stormwater runoff.

County’s stormwater fee request

During its Monday meeting, county commissioners argued that it’s unfair for local governments to pay the city stormwater fees and passed a resolution asking state lawmakers to exempt governmental entities from stormwater fees, citing the airport and the local school system, which pays $233,391.

The vote was 5-2 with County Commissioner Walter Marshall as one of the dissenters saying that all properties with impervious surface of more than 400 square feet, regardless of who owns them, are required to pay for federally mandated stormwater management.

“We’re asking the State to do something it doesn’t have the power to do,” he said.

Stormwater fees on impervious surfaces, charged by the acre for businesses, are used by the City to fund stormwater management, a program required by the Federal Clean Water Act in larger cities to protect bodies of water from pollution that can come from stormwater runoff. Stormwater fees are a common way cities fund the program, though some cities add the cost onto its property taxes instead.

County Commissioner Everett Witherspoon was the other “no” vote. He wondered how such exemptions might affect the budgets of stormwater programs in other cities. Though he felt the airport is paying too much in fees compared to its revenue, the fees are only a fraction of the percentage of the school system’s and the county’s budget

“We have the ability to pay,” said Witherspoon.

County Commissioner Don Martin, a former local school superintendent, countered that even if it was a small part of the budget, the school system could still find better uses for the money.

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Wali Pitt

Wali Pitt

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