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Posted: September 5, 2010 12:00 a.m.

The Bankrupting of Bob Riddell

Airport operator says city has shown incompetence

Bob Riddell is fed up with the way the city’s been treating him and he’s making it known. As the owner of Dixie Jet Services, the firm that operates the Covington Municipal Airport, Riddell has been struggling to operate his business during a down economy, a runway construction project that went months past deadline and a threat of early termination looming over his head.

Riddell said he’s had to sell off assets, including planes and even personal property, and take out a significant chunk of loans, just to weather the year that the airport has been either partially or completely closed. According to financial documents provided by Riddell, he’s sold off assets and taken loans for a combined amount of nearly $1.6 million; often the money was needed to simply pay for rent or fuel. He estimated he’s invested nearly $2.8 million since he took over operation of the airport in November 2001.

Dixie Jet has had its fair share of critics. Mayor Kim Carter has argued that the model of having a third-party operate a municipal airport is outdated and various customers have complained about a lack of fuel and service.

However, Riddell said many of his troubles have been caused by the city’s poor handling of construction projects.

"One point I’m trying to make, is that if the city is so incompetent that it takes them [14] months to complete what was supposed to be a 60 to 90 day project, how in the world are they going to be able to run a FBO in any competent manner?" Riddell asked. "That’s something the public needs to ask themselves, especially the aviation public."

Business Nightmare

He said the latest runway rehabilitation project is a prime example. In June 2009, the city announced that the airport runway would be completely closing late in July for two months for a construction project, with an additional 30-day closing period for other work.

Soil tests revealed some potential problems, and construction didn’t start until Sept. 21. Dixie Jet Manager Rusty Anglin said this was problematic because the airport had already largely shut down months earlier in preparation for the July closing date.

A particularly wet winter pushed the airport opening from Dec. 21 to Jan. 20, and even then, the airport was only open for daylight operation, due to an electrical problem. Other work also had to be completed.

According to Anglin, it wasn’t until late April that the airport was finally open for 24/7 flying.

However, Dixie Jet had another problem on its hands – fuel. Part of the construction project involved relocating two 10,000-gallon fuel tanks, but Anglin said they were damaged while being moved.

In their place, Dixie Jet had to depend on two fuel trucks, one of which could hold 2,000 gallons of Jet A fuel, and the other of which could hold 800 gallons of AvGas. In March, a highly publicized fuel shortage occurred, but Anglin said it would have been prevented if the tanks had been up. However, because they had sat vacant for so long they were rusted inside and had to be cleaned, plus the pumps had been broken. The Jet A tank was up by June, and the AvGas pump was up by late July.

However, even then, the card reader which allowed 24/7 fuel purchases was down, hurting Dixie Jet’s ability to sell gas. Another fuel shortage occurred last week, with both tanks up, but Anglin said the company had fuel, just wasn’t sure it had enough for a large customer.

Finally, while the airport is essentially fully operational, some small repairs still remain as the calendar turns to September.

Regardless, Riddell said if he hadn’t been willing to invest around $1 million of his personal money, the company would long ago have been bankrupt; something, he has a feeling Carter wouldn’t mind.

Run out of business

Even if the construction delays weren’t malicious in nature, it’s obvious the city didn’t care about his fate, Riddell said. He said the city did nothing to spur the contractors to finish their work and adamantly refused to abate any taxes or fees for the company, despite the fact it was closed or significantly affected for months. He said they hounded him about an $8,000 stormwater fee, which he finally paid recently out of his own pocket.

In addition, before construction started, Riddell asked if there was any way the airport could only be intermittently closed, but the city chose to close the runway completely during construction. He said the city also took longer than expected during the runway expansion in 2006 and 2007. The project was supposed to last six months, but didn’t wrap until after nine months, Anglin said.

"I’ve had my fill and now I want people to hear … from the very beginning I’ve tried to be a partner and offered to do anything to help the city achieve success," Riddell said. "I’ve tried to work with the mayor. We invited her right after she was elected, and she never came back."

"That woman comes out of her chair every time she sees us, and I’ve never done anything to her."

Riddell hopes the council will takes all the facts into consideration when they decide on Dixie Jet’s future at Wednesday’s council meeting at 6:30 p.m. at city hall. He once again invited council members to come out and visit him, something he said none have yet done.

If the council does vote to terminate Dixie Jet’s contract, a legal battle could ensue, because Riddell said previously that the contract will not fairly compensate him for all of the money he has put into the airport.

"We’ve done the best job we could possibly do. And we’ve done it on our own dime, often in spite of the city and city politics," Riddell said. "We’ve been quiet about everything the city’s done, until now."

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