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Airport authority takes next step
Some citizens wonder if progress moving too quickly
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The Covington City Council moved forward with the creation of an airport authority, despite concerns from some residents that the city was moving too quickly.

The council voted unanimously 4-0, with councilwomen Janet Goodman and Hawnethia Williams absent, to approve a resolution to be sent to the Georgia General Assembly supporting the creation of an airport authority. Authorities can only be formed by an act of the Georgia legislature, so cities only have the power to request that their state representatives introduce the bill.

Authorities are quasi-governmental organizations that are granted special powers by state law. The council has been considering forming an airport authority because they want a dedicated group of experts to control the airport’s growth and development.

At the Dec. 21 council meeting, City Attorney Ed Crudup presented a draft of the potential powers and duties of the authority. However, he said the specific bylaws that govern the authority would be established by the authority members and council once the authority is officially formed by the state.

The draft called for the authority to have seven members, at least two of which would be required to have aviation expertise. All members would be appointed by the city council. Four of them would be appointed to four-year terms, and three of them would be appointed to three-year terms.

Originally, the authority members were not to be compensated for their service, but Mayor Kim Carter said paying the members, even a small sum, could attract more qualified candidates. The wording was changed to allow the authority members to decide whether they need to be compensated and how much they need to receive. Members also will be reimbursed for any costs associated with authority business.

Once created, authorities become independent entities, which does raise concerns about oversight. Crudup said the council’s oversight comes in assigning powers to the authority in the initial formation and by appointing members. However, once the bylaws are set they cannot be changed. Similarly, once a member is appointed, he cannot be removed from office until his term ends, unless he is convicted of a felony.

If formed, the authority would be allowed to purchase or lease land and other property, enter into contracts and borrow and loan money and would basically have all the same rights as a private corporation.

One of the most important powers is the ability to issue special revenue bonds. By issuing these bonds, the airport authority would be able to raise money to expand the airport or to loan to businesses around the airport. These bonds are more attractive to the investors because the interest rates are lower. The authority doesn’t have to pay any taxes on the interest earned on the bonds so they can loan money at about 2 percent lower than private loan companies.

The act states that the general purpose of the authority is to acquire, construct, equip, maintain, improve and operate an airport and the related facilities.

When the authority is formed the city will have to decide who will own the actual airport and vacant industrial land surrounding the airport. Originally, the council thought the city would maintain ownership of the airport, but Crudup said the authority could be more effective if it owned the airport and the surrounding land. He envisioned the airport authority operating similarly to the Industrial Development Authority, which owns land and conducts similar activities in order to help start new businesses and to help existing businesses expand.

Newton County resident Chris Jueschke spoke during Monday’s meeting and asked the council to table the resolution. He said the decision to create an airport authority is one of the most important decisions the council will face, and he hoped the city would consider more public input, and perhaps even hold a public referendum, before taking a final vote.

He said one of the arguments he’s heard in favor of passing the authority resolution right now is that the council wants to give the Georgia General Assembly enough time to form the authority. Jueschke said there was no harm in delaying such an important decision another legislative session.

He said the council said it also wants to form an authority to remove political influence from the airport’s future, but Jueschke said an authority is still a quasi-governmental body with members appointed by the council. An authority would only remove the operation of the airport even further from the public’s oversight.

Mayor Kim Carter said the decision to form the authority may appear rushed, but it has been in the works for a long time. She said the most compelling reason to form the authority is the bond-issuing ability.

The Department of Transportation’s aviation department declined to provide any thoughts on the pros and cons of authorities.

Emory Geiger is the chairman of the Gwinnett County Airport Authority and also owns a hangar at the Covington Municipal Airport. He said the primary advantage of an authority is that the city or county has a dedicated management team to run the airport. An authority would provide dedicated experts and take pressure off City Manager Steve Horton, who is also the current city airport manager.

He said the difficult part of forming an authority is creating the proper balance. He said both the council and authority need to be involved in the future.

"I’m a little concerned about the possibility of granting the authority 100 percent of the power and authority," Geiger said. "The city needs to have more control and oversight then just appointing members."

He said Gwinnett’s authority members are not paid, but he said Gwinnett’s authority is more established and has a full staff to run the airport. He said at first the Covington authority members may need to spend a lot of time setting up operations, so payment could be justified. In his experience, about half of authorities pay their members.

The airport’s current operator, Dixie Jet, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

State Rep. Doug Holt (R–Social Circle) said he or Sen. John Douglas (R–Social Circle) will introduce the resolution for the authority after discussing the authority with the council and mayor. Holt has reservations about some types of authorities, but said he couldn’t judge an airport authority in Covington until he learned more about it.