By Ben Zion Hershberg
January 30, 2011
A local state senator wants to bolster the Clark Regional Airport’s financial stability by creating a regional authority that could collect taxes from homeowners and businesses in Clark, Floyd and Harrison counties.
Sen. Ron Grooms, R-Jeffersonville, has introduced Senate Bill 444, which he hopes will help the airport attract large cargo jets, more business travelers, and maybe even commuter airline service.
Such a burgeoning airport would “stimulate the (regional) economy and grow jobs,” Grooms told the airport’s board last week.
“It’s a pretty exciting idea,” said Sen. Tom Wyss, R-Fort Wayne, who chairs the Homeland Security and Transportation & Veterans Affairs Committee, where the bill has been assigned.
“This is a very formidable opportunity to create a regional, smaller airport, one
that’s beneficial to the entire area and that can attract a lot of business officials and CEOs who don’t want to fly into a major airport like the ones at Louisville or Indianapolis,” he said.
Wyss has committed to a hearing on SB 444 but has not yet scheduled it.
A regional authority would have much broader powers than the airport’s current board, said Ron Barnes, chairman of the Clark Regional Airport Board. Besides developing a steady flow of tax revenue, a regional authority could sign management agreements with the Louisville Regional Airport Authority, which operates Louisville International Airport and Bowman Field, he said.
That would create a highly efficient aviation system, under the Louisville authority’s management, with small airplanes using Bowman Field, larger business and charter airplanes using the Clark airport, and the biggest cargo and passenger airplanes having unfettered use of Louisville International, Barnes and other Clark airport officials have said.
“I see lots of good” coming from Grooms’ bill, Barnes said. The measure parallels the Clark airport board’s efforts to stabilize its finances over the past three years.
In earlier years, the Clark County Council provided about $30,000 a year to supplement the airport’s rental income from businesses. But annual operating losses of about $30,000 to $50,000 in recent years have used up reserves and left board members wondering how the airport, which is near Sellersburg, could survive.
Clark council members have rejected several requests for operating funds, citing the county’s budget problems. They urged the airport board to become self-supporting.
In 2009, the board imposed fees for landings and on fuel bought there, easing the airport’s financial crisis.
But growth requires the resources available from creating an independent authority, like that described in Grooms’ bill, Barnes said. Or it means getting the County Council to turn the airport board into an authority, he said.
Grooms said his bill gives the board the latter option as well. He said SB 444 would allow creation of the South Central Regional Airport Authority with a nine-member board. Three members would be appointed by the Clark County commissioners. The Floyd and Harrison county commissioners would appoint two each. Two members also would be appointed by the Indiana Port Commission.
Grooms said he included Floyd County because it seems to naturally fit with Clark in operating a regional airport. He said he included Harrison County because a growing airport might benefit Horseshoe Southern Indiana Casino, and the airport might benefit from the gambling taxes and other fees that Harrison County receives from the casino.
The port commission can already levy a tax and could integrate the river and rail transportation at the Port of Indiana-Jeffersonville with air transportation at the nearby airport, Grooms said.
James Goldman, president of the Harrison County commissioners, and Mark Seabrook, president of the Floyd County commissioners, said the idea of a regional airport authority is interesting, but they need more information to decide whether to support it.
Maria Muia, a consultant for the Clark airport board, said there are 16 airport authorities in Indiana operating 23 airports. Larger airports, like Clark County’s, with about 70,000 takeoffs and landings a year, generally are run by airport authorities, she said.
A tax of a half-cent per $100 of assessed value in Clark County would provide $200,000 a year for airport operations, Muia estimated, with even less needed if three counties are involved. An additional tenth of a cent per $100 of value could be used to develop a building fund that would help obtain local matching funds for major construction projects, like the 1,500-foot runway extension now in its early stages. The total cost of the extension is $20,000.
The extension will give the Clark airport a 7,000-foot-long runway – twice the length of Bowman Field’s.
Barnes said Grooms’ bill is exciting, but he thinks the first step toward boosting airport development is asking Clark County officials to create an airport authority.
Once that happens, “we might say, ‘OK, you’ve allowed us to get to this point,’ ” so let’s take the next step, he said.
The airport board plans to discuss creating an airport authority with Clark County officials on Feb. 18 at noon and Feb. 21 at 5:30 p.m. in the Community Room at the McCauley Nicolas Centre in Jeffersonville.
Alan Conner, the board’s vice chairman, said the concept of a regional authority would require careful diplomacy to interest everyone involved.
“I think that’s four or five years down the road,” he said.