092519_PNN_Airport_Agreement

From left, new member Tom Morris talks with Paulding County Airport Authority members Dave Carmichael and Harold Linnenkohl before the authority’s Sept. 18 meeting.

Paulding County government will shoulder more of the burden for paying the struggling county airport’s bills under a recently approved contract between the two agencies.

The new, two-year intergovernmental agreement gives Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport more county government funding for operations while giving the county responsibility for paying all its legal fees.

The new agreement sets an annual county government payment of $332,000 to the airport authority to supplement the airport’s total $500,000 operating budget — the remainder coming from hangar rentals and leases, airport director Terry Tibbitts said.

It replaces a pact on which the airport operated for almost five years based on the assumption the airport would strengthen financially over time with a designation as a commercial airport — which a federal agency rejected in 2018.

“This is merely a modification to the agreement to recognize the fact that we are no longer moving forward with commercialization,” Tibbitts said.

County Administrator Frank Baker said the new agreement will take effect immediately after the airport authority approved it Sept. 18 and the Paulding County Commission on Sept. 10.

It is designed to be retroactive to July 1, 2019, and make the first quarterly payment of $83,000 due immediately and paid from county reserves, he said.

It also includes a plan to “assist” the airport by paying for “any legal fees that the airport has or will have in the future,” Baker said.

Baker said county officials began working in May on the plan.

It reflects the fact the county government and airport authority already are required to cooperate when acting as co-sponsors for federal grants for the west Paulding facility, he said.

“We looked at it as, ‘What do we need to do as a co-sponsor to recommend to this board to fund the airport and to assist them?,’” Baker said.

The airport authority owns hundreds of acres at the airport site off Rockmart Highway, including the 163-acre airport facility and its 5,500-foot runway.

Tibbitts said the new agreement converts the airport authority’s sole ownership of all airport land to joint ownership between the authority and county government.

“This notion that it’s the airport authority’s airport and the board of commissioners don’t have any responsibility for it, or vice versa, does not fly with the FAA,” Tibbitts said. “We intend to demonstrate that we’re working together going forward.”

County Commissioner Chuck Hart said the board saw more than one draft of the new agreement before settling on a two-year plan for funding most of the facility’s operations and all of its legal fees.

“I like we kept it to a two-year term,” he said.

He said he supported the move to give more funding to the airport because of its potential for economic development.

Commissioner Ron Davis said he preferred the airport become a county department rather than continue solely under airport authority control because it already had requested county funding for such projects as a fire suppression wall in its main hangar building.

However, he said the new agreement sets the airport “in the right direction” toward becoming a county department.

It also is not a long-term agreement as the old 10-year agreement was, and gives the commission veto power over any airport authority decision to seek a change in the airport’s federal designation, Davis said.

Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport opened in late 2008 just as the worst economic downturn in a generation hit the Atlanta area.

The county airport authority — seeking a way to make the airport profitable — quietly signed a contract with a private company called Silver Comet Terminal Partners in 2012 to help it develop the facility as one hosting commercial passenger flights.

However, public opposition to the plan grew soon after the company announced the commercialization effort in 2013.

A group of residents filed a series of legal actions soon after the announcement alleging a lack of transparency in hiring the company and other charges, which led to a stalemate in moving forward with needed renovations and other actions.

Voters elected a new anti-commercialization majority of county commissioners in mid-2014 and the outgoing pro-commercialization majority approved the former airport agreement in October 2014 before the new majority took office three months later.

The agreement essentially spun off the airport from direct county government control to give the Paulding County Airport Authority almost sole power to operate the facility.

It also set up an annual county government funding schedule in amounts set to decrease annually to help the airport “get on its feet” financially as it developed under a planned commercial designation.

But the airport struggled to gain new revenue sources as it dealt with the rising costs of defending legal challenges from private residents and governmental entities related to the doomed commercial plan.

Despite the county being a co-sponsor of federal grants to the airport, county commissioners joined in the opposition both publicly and through the courts beginning in 2015.

The actions finally convinced the FAA in 2018 to halt its consideration of the airport authority’s request to change the airport’s current designation as a General Aviation facility to one allowing the commercial service.

Tibbitts noted he told commissioners earlier this year the airport “did not have a workable business model” because it was based on commercial service.

Commissioners later rejected Tibbitts’ proposal for the county government to absorb the airport as a department because of such factors as ongoing litigation the airport board was facing — including a federal lawsuit by former tenant Silver Comet Terminal Partners.

However, Tibbitts said the airport still had “bills to pay” and Silver Comet is no longer paying rent on the terminal building.

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