City council opposes de-annexing airport

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 20, 2013

SALISBURY — In an effort to fight Rowan County’s move to de-annex the airport, Salisbury on Tuesday made the case for why the facility should remain in the city limits.
But Craig Pierce, vice chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners who attended the City Council meeting, said later he was not swayed and accused the city of not telling the whole story. He said the county will proceed with asking legislators to remove the airport from the city limits.
While county commissioners look for a de-annexation bill sponsor, City Council will send the N.C. General Assembly a resolution opposing any local act to remove the airport from Salisbury.
“I see this as nothing more than a vindictive effort to get back at us for the decision we made regarding the central school office,” Councilman Brian Miller said.
City Council last month agreed to consider borrowing $8 million on behalf of Rowan-Salisbury Schools to build a downtown central office after Rowan County commissioners nixed the project.
At Tuesday’s meeting, City Manager Doug Paris called on several city staffers to detail investments and improvements the city has made at the airport, as well as “lost opportunities” if the airport leaves the city limits.
Paris said with the city’s offer last week to cut the property tax rate at the airport to 70 cents per $100 valuation — 35 cents each for the city and county — the Rowan County Airport would have the most competitive tax rate around, less than Statesville Airport’s 89 cents and Concord Airport’s $1.18.
Paris said his staff struggled to find an airport in a metro city that would have a tax rate lower than Rowan Airport’s.
“Our rate is very competitive, and the action you took Friday would have made that rate even more aggressive in recruiting businesses,” Paris said.
Pierce said if the airport is de-annexed, the tax rate will drop to the county’s even more competitive rate of 62 cents. Pierce said the Stanly County Airport’s tax rate is 60 cents, and Rowan has already lost a customer to Stanly but would not name them.
Pierce said the county was forced to renegotiate Food Lion’s corporate hangar lease because the company complained that its property taxes doubled after Salisbury annexed the airport in 2005.
As of October 2012, Food Lion’s lease went down from $1,962 to $1,700 a month, Pierce said. The lease for the other large corporate tenant at the airport, Shoe Show, hasn’t come up for renewal yet, he said.
Salisbury began offering tax rebates for airport property in 2009, bringing the combined city-county tax rate down to 80 cents.
On Tuesday, City Engineer Dan Mikkelson said the city had planned to offer services for free of Salisbury civil engineer Brian Alston, a major in the Air Force who specializes in airport construction, to oversee runway and hangar construction at the Rowan County Airport. The city and county agree the airport’s runway must be lengthened by 1,000 feet to accommodate larger planes and attract more business.
Mikkelson said Alston is part of an Air Force advance team working on construction of two hangars and a runway in Mississippi.
Pierce said no thanks, the county has a private firm to oversee the construction that will find funding to cover its fee.
Jim Behmer, director for Salisbury-Rowan Utilities, said the city has invested close to $200,000 at the airport, including water and sewer extensions in 1990, 1993 and 1997.
Behmer said at the request of the county, Salisbury-Rowan Utilities has been working with Rowan on the design, permitting and upcoming construction of a private fire line and domestic water line extensions to serve the future airport hangar.
“We also hope to help reduce the $96,000 cost estimate by using our own forces and equipment for construction,” Behmer said.
Thanks to the city’s new one-stop shop, design and permitting have been expedited and construction could start within two weeks, he said.
Pierce, who served as chairman of the airport advisory board until he won election to the county commission, said he city has made no investment in the airport since 1998. Pierce said the city in 2005 only annexed the portion of the airport that offered tax revenue.
Fire Chief Bob Parnell warned that the airport’s fire rating could drop with de-annexation, which would mean higher insurance premiums for businesses.
Parnell said the Salisbury Fire Department invested $325,000 in a new engine in 2010 with special capabilities to respond to plane crashes and fires. The engine is stationed on South Main Street, one-and-a-half miles from the airport.
Pierce said the city didn’t buy the new engine just for the airport, and he believes the airport’s fire rating could improve with de-annexation if the National Guard takes over fire protection.
He said the county has been discussing the possibility with the guard.
Finally, Paris said the airport would benefit from Salisbury’s access to money to identify contaminated sites within the city limits, leading to clean up through the Community Brownfields Program. The airport has been identified as a top priority, along with Kesler Mill in Park Avenue, Paris said.
The airport has soil contamination that will cost several million dollars to clean up, which must be done before the runway can be extended, Paris said.
“We wanted to help with that situation,” Paris said.
If the airport is de-annexed, it would no longer be eligible for the city program, he said.
Pierce agreed the airport has contamination that would keep the runway from being extended but said the county has come up with another solution.
“We will extend the runway the other direction,” he said. “It’s something we are working on right now.”
In the de-annextion debate, it’s not clear how much money is at stake. The Salisbury Post has asked several city and county officials how much property tax revenue Salisbury stands to lose if the airport is removed from the city limits, but there was no answer as of Tuesday night.
Paris said he’s been asking the same question for a week and is waiting to hear from the county, which levies taxes on behalf of the city.
Councilman Miller said he was planning to suggest Tuesday that the city earmark 100 percent of its airport property tax revenue for improvements to the facility. Miller said he was going to propose an agreement between the city and county where Rowan would pay for airport improvements from its fund balance, with the city “giving them back every bit of what we earn through our taxing authority at this location.”
Instead, Miller said he had to respond to the county commission’s 3-1 vote Monday night to pursue de-annexation.
“It’s about power, and it’s about control,” Miller said. “There, I said it.”
Miller earned a smattering of applause when he said “the pettiness has to stop” and, speaking directly to Pierce in the audience, the city will help with runway expansion “even to the detriment of our tax receipts.”
Miller said he gets no benefit from being a resident of Rowan County, and all his services come from the city of Salisbury, which he compared to taxation without representation.
Later, Pierce said he was offended by the statement because Miller neglected to note that Salisbury benefits from the public school system.
Councilman William “Pete” Kennedy said City Council’s job is to protect the interests of the city. Councilwoman Maggie Blackwell said voters elect leaders to “think beyond our personal feelings and to lead with a vision for the future and community.”
The city renewed Mayor Paul Woodson’s invitation to meet with county commissioners, which he issued Monday hours before commissioners voted on de-annexation.
“I will continue to extend that olive branch as long as I can hold onto it,” Blackwell said.
Woodson said he still hopes to have a joint meeting.
“We will do anything we can to work with you all,” he said to Pierce and county Commissioner Jon Barber, also in the audience.
Woodson has an ally in Barber, who voted against pursuing de-annexation. Barber issued a statement Tuesday encouraging his fellow commissioners to meet with the city.
“The time has come to look beyond playing the politics of power and get down to business,” Barber said. “Our ability to work together will avoid creating any further image challenges Rowan County already has in the halls of Raleigh.”
Pierce said he’s willing to meet with anyone who asks but doubted the entire county board will agree to meet with City Council about the airport.
He said de-annexation has nothing to do with the school central office, as Miller alleged.
“We are happy the city stepped up and did what it did,” Pierce said. “… We’re good. As far as the commissioners are concerned, that issue is over.”
Pierce said he and commission Chairman Jim Sides told Woodson and Paris they would pursue airport de-annexation during a conversation in December, long before the city discussed borrowing money for the central office project.
“There is no rub with us and the city. We don’t have any axe to grind with them,” Pierce said. “We are trying to do what we think is best for all of Rowan County.”
Paris said city staff are preparing a history of the airport, which the city founded in 1928 and conveyed to the county in 1955.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.