Sales tax panel reviews airport funding request

An airplane takes off recently from Athens-Ben Epps Airport. The airport authority is seeking some share of revenue from a proposed 1 percent local sales tax with proceeds going to transportation-related projects. A referendum on the levy is scheduled for November. (Photo/ John Roark, Athens Banner-Herald)

A citizen advisory committee has begun whittling down a projected $246 million in requests for funding with a yet-to-be-approved 1 percent local sales tax projected to raise just $104.5 million over five years if approved by Athens-Clarke County voters in November.

Actually, just $73.1 million of the tax proceeds would be available for new and purely local projects. If the planned 1 percent levy gets the OK from voters later this year, $31.4 million would be earmarked for state and local projects already on the books.

If the 1 percent tax is approved, bringing Athens-Clarke County’s sales tax rate to 8 percent, collections would begin in May of next year.

From now through early next month, the Transportation Special-Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST) 2018 Citizens Advisory Committee, a 22-member panel comprising two members each appointed by the county’s 10 commissioners and Mayor Nancy Denson, will meet twice weekly — with the exception of the week of March 20, when it will meet just once — for detailed briefings on the project requests.

Beginning as soon as April 10, the committee will start conducting straw polls among members with regard to which projects should get funding. The initial goal will be to whittle the requests down to 150 percent of the projected revenue from the tax, with additional polling to get the projects in line with the revenue expected from the tax. It’s possible that in the process of the straw polling, the committee might opt to trim funding from a project rather than reject it outright.

Once the committee has come up with its recommendations, they will be forwarded to the mayor and commission, who will formulate the final list of projects to be included in the November referendum.

The advisory committee began its look at project proposals in a two-hour Monday session with Athens-Ben Epps Authority Chair Beth Higgins and Airport Director Tim Beggerly, who took the panel through the airport’s four requests for funding.

Those requests included $1.5 million in matching funds that could be combined with state and federal dollars for a number of projects, from rehabilitation and other work on Runway 9/27, to expansion of the aircraft parking apron and for “avigation easements” to ensure that properties outside of airport property, but in line with runways, can be kept clear of potential aircraft obstructions.

A $17 million extension of Runway 9/27, funded mostly with federal dollars, along with $425,000 in local funds, was recently completed, but the citizens committee learned Monday that the rest of the runway was not a part of that project.

The airport authority is also requesting $6 million for repaving Runway 2/20, where the current asphalt is estimated to be at least 40 years old. That project would not qualify for federal funding, which accounts for the large dollar amount being requested, Beggerly told the committee.

As part of the presentation on Runway 2/20, Beggerly showed the committee some photos of the runway detailing long cracks measuring some inches in depth.

The airport’s list of requested projects also included $3 million to repave the area around the airport’s commercial terminal where, as with Runway 2/20, the existing pavement is estimated to be about 40 years old, and numerous cracks are readily visible.

Additionally, the airport authority is seeking $3 million dollars for improvements to the new commercial terminal now under construction. Terminal construction is being funded with sales tax dollars approved by voters in a 2004 referendum, but the dollars allocated to the project were not sufficient to complete the “build out” of the terminal 12 years later.

The TSPLOST funds requested for this work would be used to add baggage claim equipment to the terminal, Beggerly explained, and to expand the terminal’s vehicle parking area.

In her part of the airport’s presentation to the TSPLOST advisory panel, Higgins addressed the ongoing efforts of a recently formed “working group” to bring sustainable commercial air service to Athens. That working group, in addition to Higgins, includes representatives of he University of Georgia, Piedmont Athens Regional hospital, Georgia Power, the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, the Athens Convention & Visitors Bureau and Athens-Clarke County government officials.

“We think that we have an airline on the hook,” Higgins told the panel. That airline has not bee identified, but Higgins said Monday that the company is moving from charter service into commercial service, and is talking with the working group about offering service to Washington, D.C., and New York, which an airport consultant identified in a study done a couple of years ago as the top two destinations for air travelers in the Athens area.

Responding to criticism Monday that commercial service from Athens ought to offer more than two destinations, and should include service to hub airports in Charlotte or Raleigh-Durham that would let local travelers transfer to a wider array of destinations, Higgins said such options might be negotiated with the airline, but the first priority is to get some sort of sustainable air service available in Athens.

“The job is, once we get it, to improve it,” Higgins said.

With regard to the airport’s specific requests for TSPLOST funds, the advisory committee provided only the slightest of hints as to how some of its members might be leaning.

At one point during the presentation, panel members asked whether the airport might seek some funding from the local corporations whose aircraft use the airport. They were reminded that the aircraft using the facility pay landing fees, and if they are parked at the airport for longer than an hour, also pay ramp fees that cover the cost of their use of the airport.

Noting that the airport does not currently charge for parking, Beggerly was asked Monday whether that might be a way to bring in some revenue. Beggerly said airport officials are looking at that possibility, but he reminded the advisory committee that in order to attract commercial service to Athens, the airport will need to keep fees and other charges as low as possible.

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