Castroville airport can again seek funds

CASTROVILLE -- State aviation officials have lifted a moratorium on grant funding for this city's airport despite an ongoing inquiry by the Federal Aviation Administration.

David Fulton, director of the Texas Department of Transportation's aviation division, said the resumption of limited grant funding resulted from a meeting last month with Mayor Bob Lee and other city leaders.

"They showed great interest in the airport and a very positive attitude about trying to get it back on track," Fulton said.

Work might soon begin on installation of an automated weather system, he said, for which the city already has contributed $25,000.

The city also plans to seek a routine maintenance grant it received annually until this year.

TxDOT cut off cash and put a $2.2 million runway extension project on hold last January after claims arose that the city violated conditions under which it accepted past grants.

Concerns by John Aken, then a member of the city's airport advisory board, centered on a settlement the city reached in 2000 with its former airport operator, Lou McCasland.

The settlement allowed McCasland to live at the facility and keep revenue from city-owned hangars until 2010.

State law and FAA guidelines require airport revenues to be retained for airport purposes, and noncompliant airports are ineligible for federal funds.

Federal funds were slated to cover 90 percent of the runway extension project.

Operations at the airstrip off FM 471 also were examined during a criminal inquiry of city finances, begun by the FBI and Texas Rangers and being overseen now by a special prosecutor.

FAA spokesman Roland Herwig said Wednesday that his agency's inquiry is "nowhere close to being finished."

But TxDOT aviation director Fulton, who asked the FAA to launch its investigation, said the agency recently cleared him to resume work on the state-funded weather station and maintenance grant project.

There was sharp debate Monday as City Council members weighed seeking the maintenance grant, which would pay half the cost of routine airport upkeep, such as sealing runway cracks.

Councilman Terry Beck said before the airport takes on new expenses it should repay $105,000 it owes the general fund and have cash in hand required for the grant match.

"The city wants the money back," he said. "We've got needs for that money."

The mayor said donations from airport users or the private sector could cover much of the city's grant match of up to $50,000.

"Texas wouldn't have this program if the majority of small airports didn't have cash flow problems, and we're actually better off than most," Lee said.

The facility is now turning a profit, but Councilman David Stuart said it could slip back into the red "if the airport deteriorates to the point where people stop coming."

He joined council members Kyle McVay and Sammy Tschirhart Jr. in voting to seek the grant, saying it would essentially double the city's money to tackle needed maintenance.

The motion stipulated that none of the money for the grant match could come from the general fund or utility fund.

Beck joined Councilman Joe Holzhaus in voting no.