Lee's Summit Municipal Airport, Mo. Expansion Moves Forward

Lee's Summit residents might get their chance to vote on airport expansion, after all.

The City Council on Thursday approved a plan involving a future 1.5-cent property tax to build several projects proposed for Lee's Summit Municipal Airport over five years.

No date is set for the election, and future council votes will be needed to move the project forward.

In January an effort to by some council members to call an election failed when Mayor Karen Messerli broke a tie, casting a "no" vote. The action came shortly before opponents in February tried to amend the city charter to force a vote

In 2002, the council narrowly rejected putting a tax on the ballot for the airport. Messerli broke a tie then, too, saying an election was premature because the city didn't have firm estimates on airport votes. Since then, consultants have completed preliminary engineering to get better cost projections.

And the charter election didn't settle the dispute because it became a fight over whether the amendment was a good idea for governing the city, regardless of the airport expansion.

Under the plan approved Thursday, the city is moving ahead with adding 330 acres to the airport, building an air traffic tower, moving the airport terminal, adding a perimeter fence, and eventually extending the north/south runway from 4,000 to 5,500 feet.

The cost is projected at $44 million, with about $4.6 million of local money. Most of the rest would come from federal grants.

The federal government already has allocated about $18 million in new funding for the airport. Lee's Summit would have to apply for the rest of the federal share as it continues construction.

Councilman Joe Spallo, who opposes expansion, said he thought it was time for the council to make a decision. He moved to go forward with the projects if the public approves bonds to finance most of the local match.

The council debated varied financing methods, from using general-fund money, which wouldn't require an election, to asking voters to approve a general-bond issue.

Members were split.

Christine Bushyhead and Ron Williams opposed a bond issue because interest and fees would drive up the cost. They said the city could afford about $350,000 a year for the airport from the general fund of about $45 million.

Bushyhead said the city previously used general-fund money for the airport and for rebuilding Arnold Hall and the fire headquarters.

"I'm not concerned about using our general fund to enhance an asset," Bushyhead said.

But Spallo and Tess Hurley disagreed.

"We're just stealing it out of the general fund that's for (services like) the fire and police department," Hurley said.

In the end, the council narrowly agreed to compromise.

It decided to transfer 52 acres adjacent to the airport to the project. That land can be used as credit for matching money.

The land was bought for $2.2 million from the general fund as part of settling a lawsuit that resulted from the council wanting to move a proposed apartment complex away from the airport.

The land's value will cover the city's share of costs for several years.

The property tax, which would need a simple majority to pass, could be used for covering matches of future grants. The tax would not be permanent and would expire in 10 years or after matches to grants are met. The council didn't discuss when to schedule the election.

Council members Spallo, Jim Hallam, James Freeman, Ed Cockrell and Hurley voted yes, while Williams, Bushyhead and Randy Rhoads voted no.

Bushyhead said she opposed the tax increase because it wouldn't clearly indicate whether residents opposed expansion or just opposed a tax increase.

She said the city was rushing into the tax and criticized the tax as an attempt to sabotage airport expansion, or for council members to get political cover.

"That is completely unfair to residents who think the airport is a value," Bushyhead said.

Freeman disagreed. When residents approved buying the airport, they thought it would be self-supporting, he said, and they should have the opportunity to vote.

"I've been trying to get an airport vote for six years, if that's a rush to the ballot, I'm at a loss," Freeman said.