Originally created 02/17/99

Fight threatens airport project



A political hang-up over a proposed $30,000 transfer of money from Augusta Regional Airport at Bush Field to Daniel Field threatens a long-planned $20 million terminal construction project at Bush.

Augusta commissioners voted 6-3-1 Tuesday to allow Bush Field to accept a $683,074 airport-improvement grant from the Federal Aviation Administration but denied airport officials permission to proceed with the design.

That came after City Administrator Randy Oliver tied a more than $600,000 grant that would pay for needed airport design work to the proposed $30,000 transfer.

That effectively created a Catch-22.

City commissioners won't approve the design work until Bush Field Manager Al McDill comes up with agreements from the airlines, and Mr. McDill said he can't get those agreements without the design.

"The grant is for the expressed purpose of doing the design development," Mr. McDill told city commissioners Tuesday. "The first phase of the design development is intended to put us in a position where we can have in hand information we need to arrange a contract with the airlines."

The airlines want the design to give them hard numbers on what the project is going to cost, Mr. McDill said.

But Mr. Oliver said it was "clearly unnecessary to spend $683,074" for the design without the airline agreements in place.

During Tuesday's meeting, airport commission Chairman Ed Skinner implored commissioners to approve the design work.

"We've worked on this for years, not just months," Mr. Skinner said. "We presented this a year ago, and we had tentative approval to proceed with it.

"I think if you vote this down today, you have killed the project at Bush Field. You have asked us to take you into all of our decision making. I have confidence in you folks that after all we've done at Bush Field, you're going to support us and let us proceed with this contract with LPA (airport consultants).

"Otherwise, forget it. We'll plant cotton out there where Al's put steel for an airport."

Mr. Skinner said there was no reason to delay the project.

"Augusta is the second (biggest) market in the state of Georgia, and if any of you are concerned that airlines aren't going to fly into this market, you're wrong. Delta might not. ASA might not, but somebody is going to fly into this market."

But Mr. Oliver and City Attorney Jim Wall said the commission should resolve the $30,000 transfer to Daniel Field before proceeding with the project.

City commissioners approved the transfer as part of the city's 1999 budget, but the transfer also has to be approved by the airport commission, which has not done so.

"I think that is the issue that's hanging up this thing right now," Mr. Skinner said. "We have been told to transfer funds, and the whole issue at Bush Field is hung up because we can't decide what to do about the general aviation airport."

Mr. Skinner said he couldn't see hanging up a commercial airport with the transportation of the entire community depending on it and all the Augusta development on transferring a few thousand dollars to a general aviation airport.

"That is not fair to the people that fly," he said. "People who use airplanes at Daniel Field should pay for it."

After the meeting, Mr. Skinner said the vote has killed the project.

Commissioner Freddie Handy said if the airport commission had come up with the $30,000, "wouldn't nothing ever been said."

But Mr. Skinner said it's really more than $30,000.

"They're going for $30,000 now, $100,000 next year," he said. "We know nothing at Bush Field how that money is used. They just say, `Give it to them.' And we don't know what happens to the money, and I feel the people that are given the responsibility of operating Bush Field should know where the money is going.

"They can't take money that we make at Bush Field. The revenues at Bush Field cannot be transferred. That's revenue diversion. So I don't know what the outcome of this will be. But it's very frustrating. We've been working on this for years."

Mayor Pro Tem Lee Beard and Commissioners Willie Mays and Jerry Brigham voted against the motion, while Commissioner J.B. Powell abstained. Mr. Brigham said he voted no because he didn't think the commission should do anything until the airport gets a contract. Mr. Mays and Mr. Beard opposed the motion because it did not allow design work for the project.

Other action

In other action Tuesday, Augusta commissioners:
Failed to approve hiring an aquatics center director for $35,419 a year to run the new natatorium on Damascus Road. The proposed salary is the midrange for that position in the city's salary scale. Recreation Director Tom Beck said that much was needed to hire a qualified person for the job. Delay in hiring someone may jeopardize the smooth opening of the center in mid-April, he said. Mayor Pro Tem Lee Beard said he needed more information and wasn't willing to pay that much.

Heard from Commissioner Willie Mays about the way some city employees are given raises with little or no public discussion while others must appeal and petition and wait for months or years. Mr. Mays particularly objected to a recent pay increase for City Attorney Jim Wall. Commissioners raised Mr. Wall's hourly rate from $85 an hour to $100 with no public discussion, although the vote was taken in public.

Sylvia Cooper can be reached at (706) 823-3228 or sylviaco@augustachronicle.com.