Aug. 15, 2007

In the past two years, Carroll County has collected more than $750,000 in payments from the private companies that lease corporate hangars at the Carroll County Regional Airport, local authorities said.

It's a revenue source that county officials hope will grow as the airport's planned multimillion-dollar runway expansion is completed in the coming years.

But only two of the leases on Carroll's seven corporate hangars call for the tenants to pay the county and state property taxes owed on the commercial aircraft shelters, county Comptroller Robert M. Burk told the commissioners on Thursday.

"Those businesses should be paying those taxes," Burk said. "This is just a transition. The corporate hangars will eventually pay full taxes."

Of the nearly $39,500 total property tax bill this year, approximately $25,500 in county property taxes is not being paid, forcing the county commissioners to abate those taxes, Burk said.

Approximately $4,000 in state property taxes are due on the hangars -- some $3,000 of which the county must pay, according to Burk's figures.

As the five other corporate hangar leases expire, the county will renegotiate the lease terms to include the property taxes, said chief of administrative services Cindy Parr.

The adopted master plan calling for the $56 million relocation and expansion of the airport's runway also provides another $14.7 million for building more hangars for corporate jets and smaller aircraft.

County officials have said leasing additional hangars will generate more cash for the expansion, which is to be paid for primarily with Federal Aviation Administration dollars.

When the construction of the current corporate hangars was completed around 2001, the county did not realize the government-owned property would be subject to taxes, Burk said. But since the hangars are leased out to private businesses, they are taxed. Burk said the county learned about it upon receiving the first property tax bill around 2003.

Originally, a private developer building the corporate hangars was to be responsible for any related taxes, said Steven D. Powell, chief of staff to the county commissioners. But the county assumed the cost of building the $4 million hangars in the late 1990s when the developer ran into financial trouble and pulled out of the project, he said.

By the time the property tax bills came in, the county had already entered into binding leases on all seven hangars that neglected to include those taxes, Powell said.

"As each [lease] comes up, that's foremost in our thoughts," Powell said of the lost taxes.

The two original leases on the hangars have been re-signed to include the taxes, Burk said. The five remaining leases, most of which expire in 2008 and 2009, will similarly be revised, he added.

For the past four years, the commissioners have had to annually approve abating the taxes, but each year the amount of the write-off decreases, Burk said.

"The amount of the write-off is going down and will eventually be zero," Burk said.

The tax write-off on the corporate hangars caught the attention of a few local activists who have campaigned for more than a year against the planned airport expansion.

Runway expansion opponent Mary Kowalski told Burk that the annual tax abatement seemed to be a form of "corporate welfare."

"We can't enforce something in a lease that's not there," Burk said.

Kowalski and another protester, Rebekah Orenstein, hope to raise their concerns at the Westminster City Council meeting tomorrow night. Because the expansion plan will be the subject of that meeting, town officials will hold it at the John Street fire department headquarters instead of city hall, as a number of residents are expected to show up.

Kowalski and Orenstein were among the residents who pushed county officials to delay the harvesting of approximately 330 trees in the path of the planned runway expansion.

In addition to the environmental effects of the expansion, Kowalski said she was concerned that the Westminster mayor and city council hadn't commented more on the master plan for the airport, which borders the Carroll County seat.

"They need to take a stand," said Kowalski, whose home is one-mile north of the airport. "It's an issue that affects their constituency."