City’s pleas to keep airport fall on deaf ears
SALISBURY — Legislation has been filed to de-annex the Rowan County Airport, and Salisbury’s plea to state lawmakers Friday to keep the airport in the city limits didn’t appear to change any minds.
After the meeting, which lasted more than two hours, N.C. Rep. Carl Ford said he will continue to pursue airport de-annexation at the request of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners.
Ford, a former chairman of the county commissioners, filed legislation March 7, a week before the meeting with City Council, to remove the airport from the city limits.
Two other legislators who attended Friday’s meeting have already signed onto the bill. N.C. Rep. Harry Warren is a co-sponsor in the house, and N.C. Sen. Andrew Brock introduced the legislation Tuesday in the senate.
However, lawmakers agreed Friday that if the county and city come to some kind of agreement regarding the airport, they could reverse course.
That did not appear likely during the tense meeting.
Although City Council called the meeting, two county commissioners dominated the discussion, insisting that Salisbury has not contributed to the airport’s development other than water-sewer extensions. They asked the state to take the property away from the city, which forcibly annexed it in 2004.
Salisbury is pledging to lower the tax rate at the airport to attract more business and give 100 percent of the city’s airport property tax revenue to the county for airport development for the next 10 to 15 years.
“I am not satisfied that our partners have honest intentions. They haven’t in the past,” commissioners Chairman Jim Sides said to state legislators. “It’s time to sever that relationship.”
Sides and commissioners Vice Chairman Craig Pierce, former chairman of the airport advisory board, came out swinging, accusing the city of siphoning off revenues from the airport for years while not putting “a dime” into its development.
Sides and Pierce said the county has plans to extend and improve the runway and wants to run the airport without interference, or revenue sharing with the city.
“We don’t want a partnership,” Sides said. “We want control of the airport.”
The city legally annexed some parcels of the airport but not the entire property, which Pierce called cherry-picking. He said the city has siphoned off $1.1 million in property tax revenue from the airport while the county continues to fund operations and improvements.
“The taxpayers are funding that airport while you take the revenue,” Pierce said. “... How much money have you spent on that airport since annexation? Nothing.”
Mayor Paul Woodson repeatedly objected to the idea that Salisbury hasn’t contributed to the airport, saying the city pays county taxes. The city repeatedly extended water and sewer lines to property in and around the airport and donated land to the airport.
Pierce and Sides dismissed the city’s presentation on the history of the airport dating back to 1928, which highlighted several city-county collaborations along the way.
“I don’t see lot of cooperation here, I see a lot of posturing,” said Pierce, “I see a lot of information dating back to before I was born.”
Ford said the city and county may have agreed on airport development in the past, but the forced annexation was not an agreement. He said that’s the only reason he supports de-annexing the property now.
Ford went on to point out several instances where he said the city acted behind the county’s back while he was commissioners chairman, including securing local legislation to establish a hotel occupancy tax within the city, as well as seats for Salisbury and Kannapolis on the ABC Board.
“That all happened without the county on board,” Ford said.
Despite Ford’s list of examples, Sides maintained that taking back the airport is not related to any other beefs the county has with the city.
“This has nothing to do with retribution and payback,” Sides said. “This is right thing to do and the right time to do it.”
Sides said the city decides to invest in the airport only when the county talks about de-annexing it, as in 2009 when City Council designated the airport as an urban progress zone after Sides told city officials he would pursue de-annexation but then lost an election.
Commissioners said the city’s offer to give 100 percent of tax revenues to airport development comes too late.
“You don’t go back 10 years later and try to fix it,” Sides said.
City Councilman Brian Miller said the airport “pie” will be bigger if the city and county work together.
The county argues the city hasn’t invested in the airport, Miller said.
“We are offering to change that and fit with your expectation of what we should have done from the start,” Miller said.
The city can’t change the past, he said.
“But going forward from today, we can work together and dedicate 100 percent — 100 percent — of the revenue we get from those parcels to make the improvements that we all want to happen,” Miller said.
Councilman Pete Kennedy asked state legislators to force the city and county to collaborate on the airport.
“We are giving you what you want,” Kennedy said to commissioners. “Why can’t we work together?”
Commissioner Jon Barber disagreed with Pierce and Sides.
“I would like for us to repeat history ... to build something together,” Barber said to City Council. “I don’t want to kick a partner out.”
The pleas fell on deaf ears. After the city proposed a new airport task force to rewrite the city-county agreement and obtain federal funding for runway expansion, Pierce told the city to “get out of the way.”
The airport went from $33 million in value to $21 million in value since annexation, Sides said. Pilots have left because the tax rate is too high, he said.
The current tax rate, 80 cents per $100 valuation, is one of the lowest around.
County Manager Gary Page said it’s not clear if the tax value at the airport fell because the tax rate went up after annexation or due to the recession.
The city said it surveyed three NASCAR race teams who do not use the Rowan County Airport, and none said it was because of the tax rate. But Pierce said the county wants to recruit corporate jets, not race teams.
“All we need for you all to do is step out of the way and let us get to work,” Pierce said.
Councilwoman Karen Alexander said she was surprised by the negativity at the meeting and said the county hasn’t given the city credit for water-sewer extensions.
Pierce said the county used the extensions because they were convenient but didn’t need them. If the city hadn’t extended the lines, the county would have drilled a well, he said.
The city and county now each levy a 40-cent tax rate at the airport. With the city out of the picture, the county could lower the tax rate to 62 cents and gain 22 cents in revenue.
Woodson said the city is willing to take a lower tax rate than the county to avoid de-annexation, but commissioners were not interested.
Ford said after the meeting that two pilots have told him they will return to the Rowan County Airport with multiple planes at a 62-cent tax rate.
Commissioners have decided to take back the airport because conflict with Salisbury plays well with voters in the county, and they now have a friend — Ford — in the state legislature, Miller said.
De-annexing the airport “makes perfect sense, if the only group you are advocating for live outside the city limits,” Miller said.
Two legislators urged the city and county to get along and stop turning to Raleigh to settle their differences.
“This county and city are consistently holding each other back,” Warren said.
N.C. Sen. Gene McLaurin, the only member of the local delegation who is not sponsoring a de-annexation bill, said as a former mayor of Rockingham, he is familiar with conflict between city and county governments.
“What happened today was very productive, very positive,” he said. “You may not realize that right now.”
He urged City Council and commissioners to continue talking, trying to hash things out at a local level and celebrating any success they have together.
“Problems, opportunities and issues are best solved here, not in Raleigh,” McLaurin said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.