Changes proposed to county’s Airport Commission

Sby Airport

County officials will accept input about changing how the Airport Commission is governed, at a public hearing Feb. 17.

Since its inception more than 40 years ago, the airport commission has been operated by a seven-member board, but Wicomico County Councilman John Hall, who’s also on the commission, said it would be better to change it, and have it under the county government.

“It can’t sustain itself financially. It’s been having a problem sustaining itself. This fiscal year, there was a $3.5 million loss and it’s been losing money for the last three years,” Hall said.

But Bob Dickey, chairman of the Airport Commission he’s served on 25 years, disagreed, saying the airport, which has a $1 million annual budget, has always been in the black.

When Hall said it had a deficit, he was including depreciation, which Dickey said is “a paper number.” He said depreciation “doesn’t apply to nonprofits because they don’t pay taxes.”

Salisbury City Councilwoman Laura Mitchell, a commission member four years, explained depreciation is “a tax deduction mechanism in the for-profit world.”

“In the government world, we don’t pay taxes so it really doesn’t have an impact. We don’t say, ‘The value of our building is this, depreciated by this much, so this is the book value,’” she said.

Saying it’s a deficit is a misrepresentation or lack of understanding, she said.

“For a government entity it really has nothing more than an informational value for investors who are interested in our bonds to compare the risk of investing with us vs. the risk of investing with a private company,” she said.

Dickey said the airport uses funds to enhance the airport.

“We spent over $1 million for the renovation of the Henson corporate headquarters. We renovated the Bay Landing facility. We re-paved the paid parking area. We’ve done a big extension on the airport runways, because sooner or later jets are going to be coming in here. You know the old saying? It’s isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” he said.

He referred to the annual audit, which he said showed the airport ended 2014 with $82,000 in revenues above expenses.

But Hall supports making the change.

“I’ve been on the advisory commission for three years. It would be better served if it operated by giving a report to the county executive on a daily basis. The county executive would be informed on daily basis,” he said.

Dickey said the county’s administrative officer, Wayne Strausburg, is secretary of the Airport Commission, so updates are quickly given to county executives.

Mitchell said all meetings are open and minutes available.

“Right now we control all operations of the airport,” Dickey said.

“It’s a very complicated entity dealing with the FAA and the airport. Now, we have input from both the county and city. That would go away. They wouldn’t have any decision making,” he said.

The commission has representation from the Salisbury City Council and Worcester County Commissioners. There are also four volunteers.

Hall said the commission operates as an enterprise fund and is supposed to be self-supporting.

“It charges fees for hangar space, for parking cars, car rentals,” Hall said, adding the county helps with funding if  requested. But Dickey said that is not true.

“The county has never given the commission any money, never ever given us a cent. It’s all user-funded from fees, facility charges, car rentals and hangars. It always well done and it has always made money. The Airport Commission is a big economic entity for this county,” he said.

Changing the status of the commission was scheduled for discussion at a County Council meeting this week. There will be a public hearing at 10 a.m. Feb. 17, in the council chamber.

Mitchell said the issue of reassigning the airport commission to county government “just popped up.”

“We weren’t told about it. We found out about it in a roundabout way. I think there needs to be a much more open discussion,” she said.

“It was very, sudden and unexpected and I don’t think it has been completely thought out,” she said.

After the public hearing, comments will be considered. If the council votes to make the change, it will be by rewriting county code, Hall said.

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