Airport continues effort to sever ties with city

 

The appointed body that governs Augusta Regional Airport is continuing a push to become an airport authority not subject to the Augusta Commission.

Augusta Aviation Commission on Thursday unanimously authorized airport Executive Director Gary LeTellier to seek an outside legal opinion on how the airport commission could convert to an authority, after existing legal opinions were said to differ on the topic.

The panel also approved tasking LeTellier with determining the scope and getting a cost estimate for hiring a consultant to ascertain how to replace city services currently provided the airport, such as human resources, procurement and security.

“I openly admit, I have a bias,” said LeTellier, who prefers the tasks be handled externally.

In recent months, airport officials have complained about time-sensitive matters such as grant awards, large purchases and employment contracts being delayed as they await commission approval or processing through city departments, although a city committee Monday authorized the mayor to sign off on emergency grant awards.

Augusta commissioners, meanwhile, have criticized the board’s January decision to give LeTellier a $10,000 raisethat increased his salary to $160,000, and declined to OK Commissioner Joe Jackson’s solo effort to relinquish commission control.

Jackson, who leaves office this year, said he still favors giving up commission control over the airport.

“They’re not taking from the general fund,” Jackson said. “It’s not even the commission’s money ... When the FAA and Congress puts out a grant and you’ve got limited time to turn it around, we’re losing out on their money. We put people on that board to represent us in their best interests.”

The city-owned airport occupies an enterprise fund, raising its own revenues which it invests back into operations.

Openly opposed to the moves, Commissioner Donnie Smith said the airport was wasting funds seeking legal ways around the eight commission votes needed to amend the city’s Consolidation Act and relinquish control over the airport.

Airport counsel Pamela Everett said Thursday a “charter change” appeared necessary.

“They’re not going to get the eight votes from the commission to get it done and they’re not going to get enough votes from the House members of the delegation,” Smith said. “They’re just wasting money is what they’re doing.”

Delegation members previously rejected an effort by Rep. Barbara Sims, R-Augusta, to create an authority.

Rep. Earnest Smith, D-Augusta, a former air traffic controller and retired Air Force major who previously served on the aviation commission, said he’d been surprised at an earlier meeting when the request was “dropped in our laps” with no advance warning.

“This is not the best time to be looking at making it an authority,” Smith said Thursday. “There are much more important things to be dealt with than that.”

Smith said he’d yet to receive any further communications about the effort. “No one has talked to me,” he said.

Created by the legislature, governing authorities such as Augusta’s Downtown Development Authority or the Columbia County Airport Authority exist statewide and have greater powers than those granted the Aviation Commission by the city’s Consolidation Act and local ordinances. Those powers include issuing bonds and making non-operational decisions independently of the city commission.

Aviation Commission member Cedric Johnson said after Thursday’s vote a push to separate from the city wasn’t a new concept among airport commissioners, who have discussed the idea for years.

Johnson said while the existing arrangement has sufficed, “there are times when personalities come into play” that prevent streamlined operations at the growing, mid-sized airport.

The commission and delegation members “appoint us,” Johnson said. “Our track record and operations have been stellar.”

 

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