Friday, April 15, 2011

County moves cautiously on airport funding

Commissioners cite need for more information

Express Staff Writer

The Blaine County commissioners sounded a note of caution Wednesday as they contemplated the latest cost estimates of a replacement airport and examined the county's funding options for the project.

During a meeting at the old Blaine County Courthouse, all three commissioners cited the need for more information before they can reach conclusions about local funding.

Consultants working for the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority are scheduled to meet with regional authorities from the Federal Aviation Administration at their Seattle offices in mid-May, at which time they will give the FAA a sense of Blaine County's financial commitment to the project. The amount of local support could impact the amount of money the FAA is willing to commit.

But Commissioner Larry Schoen said he thinks that's too soon for an answer from the county.

Referring to the FAA's upcoming environmental impact study, expected in late May, he said, "I think we need to see the draft EIS before we can make an informed decision."

Given that drastic increases in the airport's estimated cost have changed the discussion about how to fund it, Schoen said he doesn't see how the county can responsibly do otherwise.

"Both the cost escalation and changes in funding sources represent significant shifts," he said. "The current estimate is double what had been previously discussed [before April], and we are still unsure if we know what all of the costs will be."

Commissioner Angenie McCleary echoed those thoughts, saying, "We don't have enough information or community feedback to know right now what we want to do about funding this project."

Commissioner Tom Bowman also urged caution as the county moves forward, and said he has already asked for new information about partial construction from one consultant.

"I spoke with [Project Manager] Scott Carey about providing us with a model that treats both costs and funding levels as variables," he said. "I am hopeful that we can have a model that allows us to see what various levels of construction would cost and how that would affect funding."

Bowman also said the commissioners need a better feeling of the community's views on funding a new airport.

"What is the range of funding we can expect if we resort to a general obligation bond?" he asked. "Would this community support a small amount but balk at a figure like $25 million?"

Schoen, too, expressed the commissioners' need to know more about support from the community.

"I'm interested in what level of air service this community wants," he said. "What level of funding is the community willing to support to get that service?"

The community can offer that feedback at a public workshop in the old Blaine County Courthouse on Tuesday, April 19, at 5:30 p.m.

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