Untying Florida's Witham from Federal Cash May Not Be Easy

The county has $7 million in FAA and state grants and it has applied for another $5 million grant, said Airport Director Mike Moon.

Frustrated Martin County commissioners voted last week to try to free Witham Field from the influence of the Federal Aviation Administration by refusing future state and federal airport grants and the strings that are attached to them.

But freedom from federal and state purse strings could prove tough for the county's airport as officials start to examine how they can pay for the airport's needs on their own.

"It's going to cost a lot of money to run this airport, and that money has to come from somewhere," said John Whitescarver, chairman of the Martin County Airport Noise Advisory Committee. He is also a member of the Witham Airport Action Majority Inc., which has been calling for the county to stop using a 460-foot extension of the airport's main runway because of noise, pollution from jets and safety concerns raised by neighbors.

Commissioners vented their anger Tuesday at the FAA for refusing to approve the county's plan to shorten the runway and claiming it would hurt airport businesses.

The county has $7 million in grants from the FAA and the state Department of Transportation, and it has applied for another $5 million grant, Airport Director Mike Moon said.

Because it accepts FAA grants, the county must follow the agency's rules and get approval for changes such as shortening the runway.

"The grant money is unconscionable," said Commissioner Susan Valliere, who has been calling for the county to stop taking FAA money for a long time. "We need to get local control back so we can control what flies over our homes."

If the county stops taking FAA and Transportation Department grants, which carry similar obligations, they could free themselves from FAA influence in about 20 years, Moon said. Commissioners voted 4-1, with Commissioner Doug Smith dissenting, to pursue that idea Tuesday. FAA representatives could not be reached but have said in the past they want to avoid a confrontation with the county.

At a noise committee meeting Thursday, members worried about how the airport would afford to keep up with maintenance and improvements without federal money.

"If this was a private business, it would be bankrupt," committee member Jon Chicky said.

The county generates about $1.3 million a year from property leases, fuel sales and fees, Moon said, and spends about $1.2 million a year operating the airport, but grants pay for most of the maintenance costs.

The county is asking for $1.5 million from the state to rehabilitate one of the taxiways, and without grants the county would have to pay for that itself.

According to the airport's capital improvement budget, FAA and Transportation Department grants are expected to account for about 95 percent of the $29.2 million budgeted.

The FAA is also paying for most of the costs of a multimillion-dollar program to buy out homes affected by airport noise.

Witham Field wouldn't be the first airport to go without FAA money.

The FAA refused to give Centennial Airport in Denver any grants for almost four years because the airport refused to allow regularly scheduled commercial flights.

The airport eventually got federal law changed and started receiving grants again, but Robert Olislagers, Centennial Airport's executive director, said it was tough to keep its runways open.

"Those funds provided for all of the taxiway maintenance, and that created safety concerns," Olislagers said. "We almost had to shut down a runway."

Martin County Commissioner Lee Weberman said Witham Field would probably have to scale back operations to survive because he does not want to use any property tax money to support airport maintenance.

This could drive some of the larger jet owners to move, Weberman said.

Commissioner Sarah Heard said she thinks the airport can maintain its current level of operation on its own.

"It doesn't have to become a prop-only airport," Heard said of the potential loss of jets, leaving only propeller aircraft. "It's going to take some serious new infusions of cash, though."

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