Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Hailey says ‘yes’ to tower funding

Council says it supports a short-term solution for airport

Express Staff Writer

    Hailey City Council members said they would support funding the Friedman Memorial Airport air traffic control tower through Sept. 30, but that more research needs to be done regarding the tower’s long-term future.
    Friedman Memorial Airport Manager Rick Baird addressed the council on Monday night, saying the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority board will need to decide on Tuesday night whether or not to fund the tower through the summer.
    The tower was listed as one of 149 federal-contract towers that the Federal Aviation Administration would not fund after June 15 due to widespread federal budget cuts known as “the sequester.” The agency has since offered to fund operations of the Friedman tower until July 15 before allowing it to close.
    “I cannot imagine the board would let the tower close a couple of days before the Allen [and Co.] event begins,” Baird said Monday.
    The annual Allen and Co. media and technology conference—which brings hundreds of private jets to Friedman—takes place annually in Sun Valley in the second week of July.
    Baird said it would cost the airport $169,000 to keep the tower open through the busy summer season. The money would come from airport operating reserves, which are not derived from tax revenues.
    Councilman Don Keirn said he supports funding the tower, and that fellow Airport Authority representatives Susan McBryant and Hailey Mayor Fritz Haemmerle do as well.
    “These are the busy summer months,” he said. “Allen and Co., for instance, would be almost impossible to handle without a tower functioning. I have been assured the money is there.”
    Baird said allowing the tower to close could end the airport’s Good Neighbor program, which asks pilots not to operate at Friedman between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., in the interest of reducing noise—not to mention that closure of the tower would make the airport less safe, he said.
    Councilwoman Carol Brown said she supports summer tower funding, but that more work needs to be done to find long-term solutions.
    “I don’t want to find ourselves in four months going, ‘Now what?’’’ she said.  
    Baird said a number of legislative and legal solutions are pending.
    A bill passed by Congress last month would allow as much as $253 million to be moved from other parts of the Transportation Department to the FAA. Proponents said that should be enough to stop further furloughs and keep the air traffic control system operating through Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
    The original bill allowed the secretary of transportation to transfer funds into the FAA’s operations budget to prevent essential employees such as air traffic controllers from being furloughed, and directed the secretary to fully fund and continue operating the contract towers program.
    However, the contract tower language was dropped from the final bill, leaving more vague language that allows transfer of up to $253 million in funding to “prevent reduced operations and staffing of the [FAA] during fiscal year 2013.”
    Baird said Monday that the FAA has not contacted him yet to clarify if the FAA will use those funds to keep towers open—despite letters to the agency from 111 members of Congress and 70 mayors from across the nation that were sent on Friday. Since then, Baird said, he’s heard “not a peep.”
    The Airport Authority was scheduled to discuss the tower issue on Tuesday evening.

Kate Wutz:

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