Jun. 2--Bringing Middle Georgia Regional Airport into federal compliance this year took a $94,000 payout to a private company and city employees taking on extra duties and more hours.
Keeping it there is going to cost even more, starting with the hiring of two new operations coordinators to handle safety issues. The new hires and various upgrades help push the city's proposed aviation budget for the 2007 fiscal year up more than $200,000 compared with this fiscal year.
"I know you have to be very frugal, (but) there's things in this budget we have to do," interim Airports Director Mike Anthony, who doubles as the city's parks and recreation director, told council members Thursday.
Anthony and City Council Appropriations Committee Chairman Henry Ficklin went virtually line-by-line through the aviation department's $1.94 million budget request for fiscal year 2007. Ficklin questioned just about every expense and Anthony, backed up by city Chief Administrative Officer Regina McDuffie, said each one is needed.
Anthony also said a Federal Aviation Administration inspection is scheduled for Wednesday. It's the same type of inspection that got the city into trouble last year as the FAA and the Transportation Security Administration threatened to close Middle Georgia Regional to commercial flights, leading the city to pay TBI Airport Management to bring the airport up to code.
Anthony and Carlton Harrison, the airports operations manager brought in this year, also to satisfy federal requirements, expressed confidence that the city will pass Wednesday's inspection. But time and again Thursday, Anthony was looking to the future, toward the need to add personnel, improve the airport's taxiways, cut away the growth along the airport's perimeter fence and take care of problems that have been ignored for years.
Anthony also said, and Mayor Jack Ellis has confirmed, that the city is in "very preliminary discussions" with a second airline to service Middle Georgia Regional. The city's only commercial carrier, ASA, currently offers four flights a day at the airport, cut back from the six last year.
Anthony said the city is trying to get ASA to add flights, but is talking with Advantage Aviation, a charter service that could add regular flights to the Baltimore and Washington area.
Over the years, many such discussions have taken place without new destinations being added. But city officials have said they have more to work with this time because of a $500,000 federal grant that can be used to entice a new airline or to help ASA establish a new route on its own.
A new route and increased traffic are key at the airport because they would be expected to increase revenues through parking charges and passenger facility fees. Airport revenues are falling well below expected levels this year, partly because of an overestimation of lease payments and partly because ASA reduced its number of flights.
With revenues trending low, Ficklin expressed concern Thursday that the airport would again fail to make budget in fiscal year 2007, which begins July 1. Anthony assured him that he feels comfortable with his new projections, which show about $1.7 million in revenue for the coming year as opposed to the $1.8 million initially budgeted for this year.
The Appropriations Committee's department-by-department budget hearings continue Monday and are expected to last through at least June 14. Ficklin said he's identified some cuts in Ellis' budget, which is built on a nearly 25 percent property tax increase, but he didn't want to talk details Thursday.
Many departments, including the aviation department, have requested substantial capital improvements, including major repairs to city recreational facilities and dozens of new vehicles. Ficklin has acknowledged that the city has delayed such purchases the last few years, leading to greater needs. But Ficklin has pushed city officials to think hard about what they really need as the city tries to buy new equipment and give employees a raise.