By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – The federal grant rejected on Tuesday by city leaders who deemed it a dubious, last-minute request by the airport is the same type of grant they have approved nearly every year since 1974.
In most cases, the City Council approved these Federal Aviation Administration grants for airport improvements within two weeks of their offer from the FAA, according to FAA records provided by the Tupelo Regional Airport. In at least nine cases, the council approved the grants within one day, records show.
Tupelo Regional Airport has received nearly $40 million in city-approved FAA grants since 1974 for a host of projects like constructing a traffic control tower, extending the runway, conducting a noise study and renovating its terminal building.
The city’s relationship with FAA grants actually dates back to 1949, when it got its first $30,000 to acquire the land for the airport itself. It got an additional $90,000 in 1950 to construct the runway, taxiway, parking apron and administration building.
The latest grant, offered by the FAA on Aug. 10, would provide $1.85 million for security system improvements, taxiway rehabilitation, concrete apron expansions and a new air-conditioning system.
The city would have paid a 2.5 percent match – $48,854.
Airport Executive Director Josh Abramson had hoped to pair the grant with other state, regional and federal monies either anticipated or already received for other improvements to airport property.
But council members rejected the grant in a 5-2 vote. Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington and council President Fred Pitts of Ward 2 were the grant’s sole advocates.
Those who voted against the grant said it was thrust upon them without warning, wasn’t explained to their satisfaction, and would mostly benefit Universal Asset Management, a private company leasing airport property.
“I usually try to support things progressive for the city, but I have reluctantcy supporting this,” said Ward 4 Councilwoman Nettie Davis. “I can’t support this until we get some more clarification on it.”
UAM’s lease agreement with the city and airport requires some improvements to the facility, which had been damaged prior to its arrival by the previous owner: the Mississippi National Guard.
“There is existing damage, but it was never built properly and it’s not safe for airport operations,” Abramson said. “I don’t care who’s over there, you can’t taxi around to the apron without tearing up the airplane because of the drop-off on the taxi lane. This was the condition that this facility was in when the city agreed to buy.”
The city and airport purchased the National Guard’s former Army Aviation Support Facility for $1.8 million five years ago. UAM pays the airport $85,000 annually to lease the facility, which in turn helps pay off the airport’s debt. That annual lease payment eventually will climb to $115,000.
But the existing taxiway and apron damage have rendered some of the leased property inaccessible, forcing UAM to park jets in other areas. At least one council member had complained about this upon rejecting the grant.
Council and airport officials are expected to meet at 4 p.m. Monday to discuss the grant and determine whether enough support exists to hold another vote. If it’s not approved by midnight Monday, the city will lose it for good, said Mayor Jack Reed Jr.
Abramson agreed the grant has a short turnaround from offer to the necessary approval, but he said it always has been that way because of an FAA requirement to use actual bids when requesting the funds.
“I cannot accept the grant based on estimates,” he said. “I can only accept a grant based on bid prices, and you usually can’t hold a contractor in more than 60 days without paying a premium.”
The airport held bid openings earlier this summer and selected contractors for the project before submitting its application to the FAA on July 30. The FAA offered Tupelo the grant 11 days later. It was up for a council vote 10 days after that.
“Everything,” Abramson said, “is last minute with the FAA.”