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Tea airport faces budget scrutiny
January 24, 2011
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  • By Sarah Reinecke

    January 20, 2011

    The seven-member board of the busy Marv Skie-Lincoln County Airport meets for this first time this year today with a new president and new members, including a county commissioner whose goal is to take advantage of the airport’s growth to make it more revenue neutral and offset costs to taxpayers.

    Like many general aviation airports in the state, the airport in Tea runs a deficit that’s not likely to go away and must be picked up by taxpayers. Commissioner Jason Melcher joined the Lincoln County Airport Board this year to help change that. The board has a new president, Craig Hagen, who moved into the position in December after the unexpected death of former president Darrell Gilmore, and added Kelly Cawthorne of Harrisburg, who filled the vacant spot.

    “We need to be able to show the taxpayers more of a benefit, or find a way where it’s not going to cost them as much,” Melcher said.

    But at least one other board member and commissioner said the airport is an important piece of economic development in the county, and the only way to raise revenue is to increase fees, rent and fuel prices, which might steer people away.

    ‘Ramp to the sky’

    “That’s our ramp to the sky,” said Commissioner Dale Long, who has served on the airport board for two years. “We have the interstate through Lincoln County, those ramps are pretty high-priced property. This is our ramp to the skyway, which brings a lot of business through our airport and county.”

    The county has maintained the airport since 1988. Last year, it cost $245,090 to run the Lincoln County Airport, with a revenue of $153,995, according to airport manager Mark Schroeder. The county’s total budget is about $13.7 million.

    Schroeder said federal and state money pays for 98 percent of airport improvements. He controls the deficit as much as possible, but thinks it’s unlikely the airport ever will be revenue neutral.

    Bruce Lindholm, a program manager with the South Dakota Department of Transportation in Pierre, said it’s difficult for general aviation airports in South Dakota to generate enough activity to be revenue neutral.

    “What are you going to do? How much can you charge?” Schroeder said.

    A bustling airport

    Out of the 67 general aviation airports in the state, Tea is one of the busiest. In December, Schroeder said the airport had 99 based aircraft, up from 82 in 2009. Six hangars were built in the past 18 months to keep up with the high demand.

    Still, to offset costs, Melcher suggests looking at the fee structure and finding ways to get even more planes, sell more gas and attract businesses.

    Long said a good way to put the cost of the airport into perspective is to look at other costs to taxpayers. He said prisoner care cost $500,000 last year. It cost $170,000 to spray the weeds in county ditches.

    “It’s a service provided to taxpayers,” Long said. “(The airport) is pretty cheap, really. It’s half of what weeds were.”

    Subsidy ‘ludicrous’

    Lincoln County resident Larry Poppens, 52, does not own a plane and never has used the Tea airport. He thinks taxpayers who don’t use it shouldn’t pay.

    “In this time when governmental budgets are extraordinarily tight, it seems ludicrous to me that we would continue to subsidize a function that serves a rather elite group of people,” Poppens said. “It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

    But Hagen, airport board president, said at the rate Lincoln County is growing, it’s important to have a viable airport. Hagen, who is a commercial real estate broker with NAI Sioux Falls, said companies consider an airport a necessary amenity. In turn, these companies bring employment opportunity to the county.

    “Just like roads, interstate and highway access, airports are important,” Hagen said.

    Dr. Frank Alvine, a retired orthopedic surgeon, has stored his plane at the Tea airport since 1976. Alvine said he still rides as co-pilot on weekly trips for medical outreach work, mainly at a clinic in Gregory.

    “It might cost (taxpayers) a little bit, but I think they gain a lot more,” he said. “Businesses around the airport benefit; we’re all running into Tea and buying things.”

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