Originally created 02/21/99

Meeting to focus on transfer



The ball is in the Bush Field Airport Commission's court, and on Tuesday they will serve up a $30,000 check to the city or probably see their $22 million airport makeover go down in flames.

The commission has called a special meeting Tuesday morning to reconsider its earlier vote to reject the city's request to give Daniel Field Airport $30,000 for improvements there. The money would go for paving, land for a runway protection zone and renovating the interior of the terminal.

If they don't approve the transfer, the Augusta Commission's vote last week to hold up the design work for a new airport terminal probably will stand, and the city could forfeit a $683,074 Federal Aviation Administration grant.

Airport officials call the transfer illegal revenue diversion, but the Federal Aviation Administration's manager in College Park disagrees. He said it's perfectly legal to transfer funds within airport systems.

The city owns both airports, governed by two separate boards. The Augusta Aviation Commission oversees Bush Field, the commercial airport. The General Aviation Commission oversees Daniel Field, which handles smaller aircraft and private planes. Both airports are supposed to operate as enterprise funds, which means they should be self supporting.

The $30,000 has become the line in the sand over which city commissioners intend to show who's boss.

Airport officials say the $30,000 is just the beginning of city officials' plans to get their hands in the airport-revenue till. And the city does plan to give Daniel Field $100,000 a year over the next five years and start taxing the airport just as it now does its utility department, said City Administrator Randy Oliver.

Mayor Bob Young said the bottom line is it's the city's airport, and it can do what it "darn well pleases with it.

"We're in charge of the airport," he said. "We're in charge of the money. And the airport commission was formed decades ago to serve in an advisory capacity and to assist in the operation of that facility."

Since the former city and county merged in 1996, city officials and the airport board and its manager, Al McDill, have been at odds over various issues, such as the city's wetlands project near the airport, Mr. McDill's raise and hiring an airport marketing manager.

City officials complain that Mr. McDill and airport board chairman Ed Skinner want to run the airport without interference from them as was done for decades under the old city.

"Al McDill works for Ed Skinner and doesn't work for us at all," said Augusta Commissioner Jerry Brigham. "Does the airport commission get the grant from the FAA, or does the city of Augusta get the grant from the FAA? It comes from the city of Augusta and ... we're going to ask questions. And I think we ought to ask questions.

"The airport is not a separate entity unto itself. It's all part and parcel of everything else here. And they can't just live in their own little world."

Mr. Brigham recently appointed Marci Wilhelmi, the chairwoman of the Daniel Field board, to the 12-member Bush Field board. Mrs. Wilhelmi has been a fierce critic of the Bush Field board.

"We have seen 40 years of fierce protectionism at Bush," Mrs. Wilhelmi said. "It's probably getting ready to end whether they want to go along with it or not. It's not a negative. It should be a positive."

Mr. Skinner denies criticism that the airport board doesn't want to come into the consolidated government.

"We have contended we are representing Bush Field," he said. "We are representing the users at Bush Field. We are representing the tenants at Bush Field, and we are trying to protect the revenues and make sure we do the job we have been appointed to do.

"But to answer the question of what I think is happening to the Augusta Commission and us, I don't know. I think we've tried to do our job is all I can say. I guess it would be up to the board Tuesday to decide how we're going to do that."

One of the newest airport commissioners, appointed since consolidation, said the outcome is obvious.

"I don't think we can win against the county commission," said Joe Scott Jr. "I do think the county commission will prevail."

Mr. Scott said Mr. Skinner is not the problem, although he's probably "fighting for turf."

"No one's intimidated by Ed on the commission," Mr. Scott said. "I think he just wants the airport to succeed. He knows the business of the aviation commission. I think he knows the business, and he wants to see the airport out there become a first-class airport for this area, competing with other airports."

Mr. Skinner said he isn't fighting for turf but fighting for Bush Field.

"If that's turf, maybe yes," Mr. Skinner said. "I think that's what we were appointed to do -- represent Bush Field. I thought Joe Scott gave you the right answer to be honest with you. We just look out for Bush Field."

Mr. McDill said it is sometimes difficult when dealing with the city to find out exactly what the real issue is.

For example, during discussions with the commission over the terminal construction, he thought they were talking about the merits of the program and the financing. The project includes a 65,000-square-foot terminal building with more gates, an administration building, curb-front covered canopy, gardens, road work and paving.

"Turns out, we're fighting over a $30,000 bone here," he said.

And as for complaints that he and Mr. Skinner want to run the airport, Mr. McDill said that's exactly what they have been charged to do.

"As I read the charter, and as I read my contract, that's, in fact, what the aviation commission is charged to do -- run the airport," he said.

Mr. Brigham said friction between the two boards started with the airport's resistance to the expansion of the city's wetlands project.

"It all started with them damn birds," Mr. Brigham said. "I think it's a problem that Al McDill has created in somebody's mind. That's what I think the problem is. If the birds are a problem, we don't need to be building on at Bush Field."

Mr. Brigham said maybe the city should buy land somewhere else and build another airport.

"I'm very concerned about them birds out there," he said. "They didn't let the Blue Angels perform here because of them birds. When are they going to tell us Delta can't land in here on account of them birds. And there's only been nine bird strikes in the last year."

A city-sponsored bird study released Friday concluded that, so far, few waterfowl are attracted to the airport because of the wetlands. However, less than a quarter of the wetlands ponds have been developed.

Meanwhile, he said he's not making any decisions about Bush Field until he sees financing details and the lease agreements Mr. McDill works out with the airport's tenants, such as Delta Air Lines. Delta is on record as opposing the $30,000 transfer.

Commissioners fear Mr. McDill will negotiate lease agreements with language that would prevent the city from transferring money to Daniel Field.

Airport board member Bernie Silverstein said, "Deliver the check for $30,000" and move on.

"This should not hold up the program of that magnitude in my opinion," Mr. Silverstein said.

And if the airport commission does approve the transfer Tuesday, Mr. Skinner said he just hopes there will be some accountability of where the money will go.

"We're charged with protecting dollars and money at Bush Field, and if we're directed by the city to transfer, whether it's $30,000 or $300,000, somebody at Daniel Field should be able to tell us what we're doing with the money from Bush Field that the tenants and the flying public is having to pay for," he said.

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

Airport troubles began in 1994

Here is a chronology of events leading up to the current impasse between city commissioners and the Augusta Aviation Commission at Bush Field over the $22 million airport makeover:

-- Sept. 26, 1994: The former city of Augusta improperly transferred $2.2 million from Bush Field revenues to the city's general fund to cover deficits.

-- February 1995: To settle a federal lawsuit brought by an environmental group over pollution in the Savannah River, the former city agreed to create a $10 million wetlands area to treat sewage from the wastewater treatment plant and have it functioning by 2001.

-- Jan. 1, 1996: The former city and Richmond County consolidate into one government. Under consolidation, the seven-member Augusta Aviation Commission at Bush Field, which was appointed by the mayor, expanded to 12 members. Each of the city commissioners appoint a member, and Augusta legislators appoint two members.

-- February 1996: The FAA decides to audit the $2.2 million transfer from Bush Field.

-- July 1997: The FAA said the transfer must be repaid.

-- July 25, 1997: Bush Field consultants unveiled a $22 million airport terminal makeover for the mayor and city commissioners.

-- Sept. 29, 1997: Amid controversy over the city's wetlands now in its pilot phase at the end of the airport runway, city and airport officials reached an agreement on a $1.1 million federal grant to pay for widening the entrance road to Bush Field, the first step in the airport makeover. Questions had arisen over whether the wetlands would attract more birds to the area and cause a plane crash. City officials contended airport officials were plotting to shut down the wetlands project because it would interfere with future airport runway expansion and were trying to use the grant to that end.

-- Dec. 4, 1997: City and airport officials agreed to take immediate steps to "address the bird population" around the wetlands. City officials said the project must go on.

-- Dec. 18, 1997: In a letter to the mayor, FAA safety inspectors classified the airport as a "potential hazard," and threatened to shut it down if wildlife activity in the vicinity became hazardous.

-- Jan. 9, 1998: The FAA gave the city a second strong warning about building the wetlands near the airport.

-- Aug. 13, 1998: FAA and Bush Field commissioners met to discuss the wetlands.

-- Aug. 13, 1998: The General Aviation Commission, which oversees Augusta's Daniel Field, asked Bush Field for $100,000 a year over the next five years, but the Bush Field board rejected the request. Both airports are owned by the city, but are governed by different boards.

-- Sept. 16, 1998: City officials agreed to re-configure the wetlands so that none of the new ponds is within 3,000 feet of airport property.

-- Oct. 15, 1998: The FAA said the city's proposal to make its wetlands project more compatible with the airport was basically a good one.

-- Nov. 12, 1998: Airport commissioners refused to pay lawyer fees incurred during the debate over the wetlands, further straining relations between the city and airport board.

-- Dec. 1, 1998: Augusta commissioners voted to transfer $30,000 from Bush Field to Daniel Field Airport and commit $300,000 more over the next five years.

-- Dec. 10, 1998: Bush Field commissioners refused to authorize the transfer.

-- Dec. 15, 1998: Angered by the airport commission giving its manager, Al McDill, an 18 percent raise, city commissioners threatened to change the Augusta Aviation Commission charter, but postponed action on the issue.

-- Dec. 17, 1998: The city adopted the 1999 city budget with the $30,000 transfer intact. The aviation commission still has not authorized Mr. McDill to write the check to transfer the money.

-- Jan. 28, 1999: The FAA shot down the city's plan to bring the Blue Angels to Bush Field for a June air show because of the high potential for aircraft bird strikes. The FAA has deemed the airport to be a potential bird-strike hazard area, according to David W. Shifflett, the FAA's principal operations inspector for the Atlanta flight standards district office.

-- Jan. 29, 1999: A Delta Air Lines vice president wrote Mr. McDill stating Delta is "very troubled" by the proposed $30,000 transfer and suggested it may be illegal.

-- Feb. 8, 1999: City commissioners voted to allow airport officials to proceed with plans to issue $15.8 million in revenue bonds and to seek permission from the FAA to add a $3 surcharge to each airline ticket to help pay for the new terminal but stopped short of committing to the project.

-- Tuesday: City commissioners voted to allow Bush Field to accept a $683,074 airport-improvement grant from the FAA but denied permission to proceed with the design because the airport commission had not handed over the $30,000. Bush Field officials call the transfer illegal "revenue diversion."

-- Thursday: The manager of the FAA's district office in College Park said the proposed transfer is legal.

-- Friday: The results of the city's yearlong bird study concluded that, so far, few waterfowl are attracted to the airport due to the wetlands, but the report stated "there is an apparent need for more careful identification of birds that are involved in aircraft strikes and wildlife incidents at the airport."