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County, EDC officials back regional air authority

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The chairman of the Chaves County Board of Commissioners and the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp. have reconfirmed support for a regional airport authority, with a county commissioner saying more input into current city discussions is wanted and that the county would be willing to contribute financially to an authority.

“The county knows that, when and if we can get through this process, that we will have some financial responsibility in the development of this airport authority,” said County Commissioner Will Cavin. “And, when that time comes, we will step up to the plate and we will be financially responsible for the needs of the airport authority. But we have to get to that point before we know what that is. We aren’t going to write a blank check. We aren’t going to say, ‘Oh yeah, whatever you guys need.’ There’s got be a plan.”

County Manager Stanton Riggs said that the county has not yet been asked to contribute financially, but is willing to work with the city on forming the authority.

The local EDC board of directors also voted unanimously Wednesday to continue efforts to form an authority.

The statements and vote come at a time when some are questioning why the recently formed City of Roswell Airport Advisory Commission has not included county commissioners. Mayor Dennis Kintigh, chair of the Airport Advisory Commission, and Roswell International Air Center Marketing Manager Mark Bleth also have commented that the “squeeze might not be worth the juice” when it comes to forming an authority, a remark prompted by the June release of a city report that points out the many legal, financial and operational issues that still need to be resolved.

In response to Cavin’s remarks, Kintigh says he would need to see a proposal from the EDC about how an authority would function and sustain the airport operations.

“I would like to see — what I’ve always said all along — I need to see a serious, detailed plan, proposal,” he said. “Once we have that — that addresses all the concerns that have been raised — then we can evaluate.”

EDC Board President Bud Kunkel has said that members with the organization are volunteering their time to review airport information and meet with city officials, adding that the information presented in the report is not as clear and complete as needed to form a plan. He said it could be years before the authority can be formed.

The state legislation giving local governments that own former military bases the ability to form special economic districts to govern and manage the air facilities was signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in February 2019.

A task force with the EDC had pushed for the legislation for two years, obtaining resolutions from the Chaves County Board of Commissioners and the Roswell City Council in support of the effort both years. Both chambers of the New Mexico Legislature passed the bills in 2018 and 2019, with few votes in opposition, but it was vetoed in 2018 by then-Gov. Susana Martinez, who said she had questions about taxing provisions and also objected to having appointed instead of elected officials for the authority.

Once the bill passed in 2019, the five-member Airport Advisory Commission and city staff began analyzing how to separate the 4,600-square-foot Air Center from the city. The city has operated and funded the facility since the U.S. military transferred ownership of the property in 1968 after the closure of Walker Air Force Base.

The “separation” report by the city includes the findings that the airport’s operating budget has been in the red for nine of the last 11 years, with the most recent deficit at about $1 million. Other concerns include whether the FAA would approve transfer to an authority, water rights and usage, and environmental concerns with airport property.

“Things may be so bad out there, inter-tangled … that it might not be possible at this stage,” said Cavin. “But if I were the mayor at this particular stage and if I had a facility that, according to him is costing the city a large amount of money at this stage, why wouldn’t you want to see if you could figure out how to bring other entities in to share that cost?”

Cavin said that the county and several other county and municipal governments in the region were willing to pledge or provide financial support for the Phoenix and Dallas air service when those were first introduced.

Discussions about the separation report have been mainly among city officials so far because Airport Advisory Commission members chose to meet during the mornings of the third Thursdays of the month, when the Chaves County Board of Commissioners holds its regular monthly public meetings.

“If you wanted the county to be at the table and have a voice, why wouldn’t you set that commission up where we could be at the table?” Cavin said.

The question of rescheduling was brought up at the Airport Advisory Commission’s August meeting, but declined by some members in attendance. Kintigh said he is flexible about the meeting time, but other members are not.

“The county commission folks and staff can come over and meet with the airport folks anytime it works for everyone’s convenience,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be at the Airport Advisory Commission meetings.”

He added that all information about the airport and its operations are public records and available for review.

Cavin said that the airport authority remains key to job growth and business development.

“If you want economic success in Roswell and Chaves County, all fingers point to the air base,” he said. “So we have to get that figured out.”

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.