Peace offering? City wants to help county with airport’s development

  • Posted: Saturday, February 16, 2013 12:10 a.m.

SALISBURY — Maybe consider it an olive branch, but Salisbury City Council took a step Friday toward smoothing strained relations it might have with Rowan County officials.

Council authorized Mayor Paul Woodson and City Manager Doug Paris to approach the county with a proposal to cut taxes a second time at the Rowan County Airport and work together toward expanding its runway.

Woodson floated the idea as council was winding up its 28th annual goal-setting retreat Friday afternoon, Woodson told his colleagues they had to put the highest priority on working with Rowan County commissioners.

He suggested cutting the combined city-county tax rate on personal property and businesses at the airport to 70 cents per $100 valuation.

The city already rebates a percentage of taxes at the airport, based on a 2009 agreement with the county.

For both the city and county to lower the rate again would make the airport “ultra competitive” against the likes of the Concord and Statesville municipal airports, Woodson said.

Woodson proposed that the city and county property tax rates at the airport each be 35 cents per $100 valuation, combining for the 70-cents-per-$100-valuation figure.

Woodson also hinted that more tax revenues raised from the airport could go toward the airport’s development, such as extending the runway by 1,000 feet.

“If we could do that one thing to come together ...” Woodson said of his proposal. “We want to work with the county.”

Paris, the city manager, called Woodson’s suggestion “a great stepping stone.”

Only moments earlier, Councilman Brian Miller said, “this relationship with the county has been weighing on me a lot lately.”

To be the competitive engine for economic development the city and county want to be, they can’t fight each other, Miller said.

Several times during the retreat, Miller talked about the need for all parties to pull in one direction.

The relationship between the two local governments has been strained lately in connection with the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education’s plans to build a new central office in downtown Salisbury.

After the proposed site had considerable soil contamination, the Rowan County Board of Commissioners withdrew a previous decision to borrow $6 million in funding for the central office.

The school board has favored construction of a 62,000-square foot building at that South Main Street location, where a gas station once operated.

Salisbury City Council stepped in last week and offered to borrow $8 million on the school board’s behalf, if it builds on the downtown site.

City officials have claimed the central school office would bolster downtown and attract private development to the southern end of Main Street.

Integro, a high-tech firm operating on North Lee Street, then announced this week its plans to build a $4 million headquarters in the same South Main Street block, on property owned by the city.

As for the airport, the city and county agreed in 2009 to an “Airport Development Zone Economic Incentive Grant.”

In that accord, each government agreed to a property tax for qualified taxpayers in the airport zone of 40 cents per $100 valuation (80 cents per $100 valuation total.)

A “qualified taxpayer” had to be engaged in “airport-related business,” defined as owning an aircraft, air charter, car rental, aviation consultants, aircraft maintenance, avionics, flight training, glider towing, aircraft rental, aircraft sales, banner towing, hangar rentals and retail activity supporting related businesses.

City officials say the qualified taxpayers pay the full amount of city tax but later receive a rebate — the difference between the regular tax rate and the incentive one.

In the agreement, the city also said it would withhold and designate 10 cents on its collected base tax rate — in other words, 25 percent of its airport tax revenues — for an Airport Development Fund, to be used for future capital projects and improvements.

As they went through their goal-setting process, council members frequently mentioned the need to work with county officials, especially in economic development.

“We can’t fight with them,” Woodson said. “We have to partner with them.”

One council goal, for example, was “to work with county commissioners on a community asset inventory and visioning for the future.”

Miller earlier had asked whether the city should take the responsibility for convening periodic “visioning” events where all the county’s residents could attend.

“I’m not sure it’s our responsibility,” but when you consider a community focus and make an inventory of what it has to offer, you should look at the whole county, Miller said.

One of the retreat’s guests, Dr. James H. Johnson, a professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, had given council members plenty of food for thought.

Johnson asked them where they wanted the city to be in five years.

“What are you selling, and who are you selling it to?” he asked. “You’ve got to put it together as a package.”

Johnson encouraged the council to build a “collective ambition for progress,” make decisions at the speed of business and knock down invisible fences.

The message had resonance with the council members.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.

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