Friday, April 12, 2013

Airport Authority: Keep Friedman tower open through summer

Short-term funding could come from reserves

Express Staff Writer

Friedman Memorial Airport Authority board members expressed frustration with the Federal Aviation Administration and the public on Tuesday when they were asked by airport staff whether they plan to keep the air traffic control tower open.

The tower was listed as one of 149 federal-contract towers that the FAA will not fund after June 15 due to widespread federal budget cuts known as the sequester.

Airport Manager Rick Baird stated during Tuesday’s board meeting that if the board planned to let the tower close, he needed to begin preparing.

“The tasks are overwhelming,” he said, referring to a series of procedures that the FAA has mandated that the airport complete if the tower is going to close. “If you’re not going to fund the tower, it’s going to take me 60 days to get this community ready. If you think you would like to fund the tower temporarily, that is something we need to begin pursuing like right now.”

Baird said it would cost between $45,000 and $50,000 per month for the airport to fund the tower temporarily. The FAA has offered to operate the tower as a federal-contract tower for one month beyond the funding cuts, but Baird said the agency would charge $45,000 to $50,000 a month regardless.

However, he said, closing the tower would be costly as well, not only in staff time to implement the necessary procedures, but to move equipment from the tower.

Baird estimated that funding the tower through the busy season and the end of the fiscal year could cost the airport $200,000, all of which would come from the airport’s operational reserves, which are not derived from tax revenues.

But board member Susan McBryant said she would have a hard time deciding to spend that kind of money without input from those who would benefit most from the authority’s funding the tower.

“Sun Valley Co. is not here,” she said. “Representatives from Ketchum and Sun Valley couldn’t be bothered, representatives from the press aren’t here—it would be too tedious for them. We are so concerned about taking care of a community that isn’t here.”

(This Idaho Mountain Express report is based on a recording of the meeting.)

But Blaine County Commissioners Larry Schoen and Jacob Greenberg stated that they feel the board members still represented the community, regardless of what members of the public had attended the meeting. Greenberg further said he would fully support funding the airport tower for at least 30 days through the extension of the federal contract program.

Board member and Hailey Mayor Fritz Haemmerle said he is worried that funding the tower through the summer might have an impact on the airport’s pending lawsuit, which seeks injunctive relief from the FAA’s decision. However, he said he would support funding the airport for 30 days.

“If we go longer than that, I fear we let the courts off the hook, I fear we let the FAA off the hook and possibly slow the pace of congressional action,” he said.

But airport attorney Barry Luboviski pointed out that not having a tower would be a problem for the annual Allen and Co. media conference in Sun Valley, for which many of the attendees bring private planes.

“You’ve got the Allen party in July,” he said. “Twenty-five percent of the county’s population works on that thing. I don’t think you can sit here and decide, I don’t think you have a choice. You have to decide now if you want to go through the summer, because we’re almost there.”

Following the discussion, the authority voted that it would not allow the tower to close, and directed Baird to look into how to fund the tower through the summer. Baird said he didn’t think funding through the summer would unacceptably impact the budget, but those would only be one-time funds.

Kate Wutz:

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