Airport, taxpayers could suffer from rift

By Emily Le Coz and Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – A rift between the City Council and the Tupelo Airport Authority could cost the city millions of dollars in federal funds and leave an already deteriorating former Army Aviation Support Facility in disrepair.
The council on Tuesday rejected a $1.85 million grant to upgrade the armory and other airport facilities because its members said airport Executive Director Josh Abramson sprang it on them at the last minute.
Abramson denied this.
Other council members questioned airport policy decisions and whether one of its new tenants, Universal Asset Management, caused the damage city taxpayers now are being asked to fix.
UAM did cause some damage but not all, Abramson said, and he dismissed policy concerns as irrelevant to the issue at hand: approving a grant to repair the old Army Aviation Support Facility that both the city and the airport purchased for $1.8 million five years ago.
The property needs security system improvements, taxiway rehabilitation, concrete apron expansions and a new air-conditioning system.
“These projects needs will not go away with time,” Abramson said. “The costs won’t go away. They’ll only increase.”
The city would have paid a 2.5 percent match on the Federal Aviation Administration grant – a contribution of $48,854 – that Abramson called the “linchpin” in a series of improvements that would benefit the airport and its tenants, who offset the hefty debt payment on the AASF purchase.
Five council members voted to reject the grant. Two wanted to approve it.
“We get very weary of having large amounts of money requested at the last minute without prior knowledge,” said Ward 5 Councilman Jonny Davis. “My recommendation would be for the management and the chairman of the Tupelo airport committee to … get together and have some communication with the council.”
However, on July 22, Abramson presented the council with his budget request for the next fiscal year, which included details about the grant. He also said he spoke to the council about the grant last week and again on Monday.
“The information has been there,” he said, “and I apologize for not relaying it to you in a way you apparently need.”
On Wednesday, Tupelo Airport Authority Chairman Ty Robinson said he’s trying to schedule a meeting as soon as possible between the five-member airport board and the council.
“I want the airport authority to answer all the questions that the council might have,” he said. “The council had some concerns and we want to alleviate them.”
Robinson said he was surprised at the grant rejection. He, too, had attended Abramson’s budget request appearance last month and was at Tuesday’s meeting. Abramson, he said, had attended other council work sessions, but no questions surfaced until this week.
Some of the questions that did surface appeared to have come from one or more emails sent to council members by former airport director Terry Anderson.
Fired abruptly by the airport authority in December 2009, Anderson since then has publicly criticized decisions by the authority and Abramson, who was hired as his replacement in April 2010.
“It’s probably too late to convince the council that some master deception is at work to use public funding to improve private businesses,” Anderson wrote in an Aug. 17 email obtained by the Daily Journal. “But over forty years in public service says that caution and scrutiny should be exercised in considering the path you’re about to take.”
Anderson did not immediately return a call for comment.
“Questions … about management are floating in the community,” said Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell. “I do believe there is some mistrust between the airport authority and this council to some degree, and that has an impact on some of these decisions here.”
Newell also had raised questions about UAM’s damage to the taxiway because of the large jets it lands and dismantles near the airport. He said it has deteriorated under the weight of those planes, an issue also highlighted in Anderson’s email.
A portion of the $503,642 taxiway rehabilitation project included in the grant does include damage caused by heavy aircraft, Abramson said. But the city’s portion on that is small.
Abramson also said that any repairs made to the area will not only improve conditions for UAM, but also will increase the airport’s chances of attracting new tenants into the roughly 17,000 square feet of vacant space now available.
UAM pays the airport $85,000 annually, with the rate going up each year. But even when it reaches its maximum annual payout of $115,000, the airport still will be some $10,000 under on its loan on the old AASF building.
The airport needs more tenants in order to break even. Denying the grant could derail this effort, as well as jeopardize its chance at getting future FAA grants – particularly when the competition is tight for a limited pot of money.
The FAA already offered the airport a $532,448 grant to cover overruns related to its 2011 runway expansion project. But the council has yet to approve its 2.5 percent match on that grant. If the council rejects it the way it did this week’s grant, it’s unclear who will foot the bill for those cost overruns.
Mayor Jack Reed Jr. had urged the council to accept the $1.85 million FAA grant. So did Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington and council President Fred Pitts.
Pitts was visibly frustrated at the majority’s will.
“We just threw away $175,000 on the Spain House,” Pitts said, referring to the city’s role in relocating a historic house. “Yet we’re questioning something that’s concrete and mortar … that will be used and benefit our city?”
At the heart of the issue is a communication breakdown, but Robinson said he understands how some council members might feel rushed to make a decision.
“To be fair to both sides, I can see where some of this might be considered last-minute,” he said. “There are so many pieces that go together to maximize what we can do.
“But this is Tupelo’s airport, not the airport authority’s. Everyone’s working to do what’s best for the entire city.”
emily.lecoz@journalinc.comdennis.seid@journalinc.com