Rowan airport de-annexation bill clears NC House committee
RALEIGH — A bill to remove the Rowan County airport from Salisbury’s city limits has cleared a N.C. House committee.
The Committee on Government passed the measure after a public hearing this morning attended by Rowan commissioners and Salisbury City Council members.
The bill now goes to a House finance committee.
Rowan commissioners requested the legislation, which has the support of the county’s General Assembly delegation, including Rep. Harry Warren, who is co-chairman of the government committee. The legislation was introduced by fellow Republican Rep. Carl Ford, a former chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners.
Commissioners say Salisbury has provided no benefit to the airport since annexing it in 2004 and that it could better compete for tenants without the city’s involvement and municipal property tax rates.
Salisbury is fighting the bill and is using Tom Fetzer, a high-profile lobbyist, to help. The city has offered to lower its tax rate at the airport and put tax revenue collected there into a development fund.
In an email Thursday afternoon, Salisbury Mayor Paul Woodson said the committee’s vote should have been counted and recorded.
“I am disappointed there was not a proper vote with a proper count in committee this morning,” Woodson wrote. “The vote taken was by voice only and the ayes and nays were split very close.”
Ford told committee members Thursday all four local delegates, including Sen. Andrew Brock and Sen. Gene McLaurin, were in support of the bill. He called the legislation a “jobs bill” and said it will boost economic gain for both Salisbury and surrounding municipalities.
“It will create jobs and the expansion of the facility,” Ford said. “When you have a pilot that says, ‘If you get this de-annexation passed I’ll bring my planes back’ that means he left and he’s not the only one.”
Rowan commission Chairman Jim Sides and Vice Chair Craig Pierce argued for the legislation. Woodson, Salisbury City Manager Doug Paris and former City Councilman Bill Burgin argued against.
Salisbury resident David Post also spoke out as a business owner who said squabbles between the county and the city make it difficult to bring business to the area.
The hearing lasted less than a half hour and had several other Rowan residents attending, including former chamber president Greg Edds and Legislative Liaison Fred Steen.
Woodson argued the city has paid nearly $5 million since acquiring the airport to extend water and sewer lines. He also mentioned several times that the land was originally owned by the city before it was donated to the county for the airport. “We bought the land and we gave it to the county,” Woodson said.
In response to Ford’s comments about departing pilots, Woodson remarked, “I don’t know of any pilot that’s actually left. I’d like to know that fellow’s name so I could talk to him.”
Burgin told the committee the city’s intent in 2004 was to “help create the best regional airport possible.” At the time, Burgin said, officials looked at the dual entity system as a benefit, not a hindrance.
“Is two better than one? At that point, we thought it was,” he said.
Along with sewer and water extensions, Burgin said, the airport receives police and fire protection from the city.
“We have a fire station just a mile up the road. We’re a Class 2 fire protection,” he said. “We offer that to the airport. As an airplane owner, it’s comforting to know we have protection for our planes in the case of a disaster.”
But the county ripped into the notion of fire protection, saying the airport has a National Guard unit on site that provides protection.
“What better fire service protection can you have than an on-site protection?” asked Vice Chairman Pierce. Pierce, former chairman of the airport advisory committee, criticized the city’s investment in the airport. “They have taken $1.2 million out of the airport and have invested nothing.”
Woodson later countered, saying the dual tax means any improvements at the airport were done in part by the city’s tax money.
Sides, who ran for the county commission in the early 2000s on the issue of fighting annexation, tried to quell notions that the de-annexation bill was fueled by a personal agenda. “I must admit that was probably the hardest question I had to answer,” Sides read from a notecard. “But I can honestly say that up to all of you today I have no personal agenda attached to this legislative request other than what is best and right for all the citizens of Rowan County.”
Sides said local support for the bill has been a factor in his backing. “All five commissioners in Rowan County support the bill and all four of the local legislative session support the bill and there has been overwhelming public support of the bill,” he said.
Post, a Salisbury business owner, said the “discontent” between county and city officials hurts economic development. “When any government — state, local, national — changes laws dramatically or backs away from laws, when you have a law that is then changed afterward, business gets a little scary,” Post said. “They wonder should I come to this particular location?”
Post also said the current tax rate is the lowest in the region for airports and doubted if lowering an already low rate would help stimulate growth.
“If Walmart lowers its prices and it’s already the low cost provider, it’s not going to attract any additional customers,” he said. “We’re in the middle of a recession so lowering taxes from already the lowest to another lower is kind of a specious argument.”
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.