By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – The City Council delivered the $500,000 promised to the Tupelo Airport Authority three months ago, but not without some skepticism and criticism.
The council voted during a special meeting to approve providing money toward a matching state grant awarded to build a long-discussed taxiway at Tupelo Regional Airport. The money was initially approved in April, contingent on the airport receiving the MDOT multi-modal grant, but Tuesday’s vote was delayed a week.
The Aeronautics Division of the Mississippi Department of Transportation requires formal acceptance of the grant by Aug. 1.
Council members wanted to wait to approve the request until after a meeting with the airport authority regarding raising fees for tenants, particularly Universal Asset Management. The aircraft disassembly business, which began operations at the airport in March 2011, has used some space outside its lease area to park some of the planes it takes apart.
“I’d like to look at charging UAM more fees than others,” said Ward 7 Councilman Willie Jennings.
Airport Executive Director Josh Abramson said the airport could not charge a specific, private tenant at a public-use airport, and said a new fee structure would be established.
The airport authority plans to charge fees to any tenant leaving anything outside of its leased space. The fees will be set after completion of the taxiway project, which is not expected to be finished until sometime in the spring.
Despite those reassurances, Jennings voted against approving the grant, even after agreeing to provide taxpayer money toward it months ago.
Jennings’ newfound opposition stemmed from how airport authority members responded when he asked if they liked the appearance of the airport with disassembled aircraft.
“I think it’s one of the cleanest areas I’ve ever seen,” said Rocky Miskelly, prior to a long pause, “for a salvage business.”
Council President Mike Bryan, the lone councilman who opposed money for the grant months ago, joined Jennings in the 5-2 vote.
UAM was at odds with the same city officials last fall, accusing the city and airport of violating its lease agreement. Company leaders said the lease agreement with the airport included an obligation to fix the old runway. City officials argued runway damage resulted from the large planes brought in by UAM.
The project last fall was estimated to cost $1.2 million and would have repaired the old runway and taxiway. This new project will build a parallel taxiway to the crumbling runway.
Abramson said the authority scaled down the scope of the work and found a less expensive alternative.
Council members approving the grant appeared unwilling to provide tax dollars beyond city obligations.
“We should approve the grant with a cap today at $417,000 or $400,000,” said Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell. “In the event there’s any other needs, the airport comes back to us.”
The council’s 5-2 approval allocated $417,000. That will be paired with funding previously committed in August, when the city agreed to just under $108,000 for emergency runway repairs.
Abramson estimated about $25,000 of it was used, leaving 77 percent – or roughly $83,000 – that the airport authority had not spent.
That remainder, plus the $417,000 approved by the council on Wednesday, totals the $500,000 needed to match the MDOT grant.
Dennis Seid contributed to this story.