For the second straight year, the Ashtabula County Airport Authority and the county commissioners are squaring off over funding for the airport. During a meeting last month, officials from the authority said the facility will be broke by fall if it does not receive $135,000 more above the $195,000 the county allocated to it for this fiscal year. The airport had requested more than $550,000 during county budget hearings earlier this year.
Last year, the airport said it would also be broke by the fall, but it managed to get by with private donations the airport authority said it does not expect again this year. At a meeting last month, commissioners said they needed a solid explanation as to why more funding is needed. Over the last seven years, the county has increased its contribution to the airport by 228 percent, according to the commissioners.
While the commissioners are always careful to praise the airport’s role and contribution to the community, there is a disconnect between what the airport authority feels it needs to operate and what the county believes is necessary — and available. County officials have made suggestions about the scope of the airport’s operation, which have been met with resistance.
“I don’t know what more the airport authority can do to resolve this money situation,” President Dwight Bowden told the commissioners. The most obvious answer is to go directly to the voters. When asked if that was even an option, Bowden told the Star Beacon he could not answer the question with certainty. We think, if the airport is in such dire financial straits, that seems like a significant question that needs to be answered and, if permitted, seriously explored.
County officials told the Star Beacon that while no one has discussed such an issue recently, putting on a levy in some format to help fund the airport was possible, citing long-ago discussions about a proposed economic development levy that would have supported organizations like the airport authority, Growth Partnership and visitors bureau.
At the very least, this issue needs to be explored by the airport authority because it would prompt an open discussion and education about the airport. The authority often tells county officials its operations are essential to corporate clients in Ashtabula County, and we have no doubt some businesses appreciate the convenience of the airport. But is that enough to justify a substantial financial increase? Perhaps, but taxpayers need to be convinced.
Many people look at the airport as something that serves a small, niche need for corporations at the expense of taxpayers. Everyone in the county appreciates the importance of Molded Fiber Glass — one of the airport’s biggest clients, so big, in fact, it hosted the meeting between the airport authority and commissioners last month. At the same time, funding the airport so corporate officials have the ability to fly off to other locations on short notice is a tougher sell. If the airport authority wants additional funding, voters will want to understand its role in the larger corporate community and know its plans for increasing traffic, fuel sales and revenue. Going to the voters for additional funding would lead to better education about the airport, and if residents agreed with the airport’s case and needs, they could either vote for a levy or let county leaders know they believe its funding should increase.
Unfortunately, the airport and its operations too often can come across as a mystery, even to the county commissioners helping pay the bills. “It’s unclear to me how those needs could be met for $217,000 or less for the last 20 years, but now it’s not possible for them to be met unless we contribute $331,000,” Commissioner J.P. Ducro said at the May meeting.
The answer, of course, is that private donations have long been used to prop the airport up. From 2011-2017, the county has given the airport more than $800,000 while the airport authority has generated more than $4 million in the same time period through grants and charitable donations. Under those circumstances, it makes some sense that the airport authority felt like it did not need to answer for every nickel and dime. However, if those funds are drying up and the county decides to kick in more taxpayer money, in whatever form, that comes with strings attached.
We believe the airport could be a resource of great potential, but it appears at times to lack a concrete — or maybe just a public — vision for the future. We agree with airport officials who say things cannot continue as they have much longer. But to justify additional public funds — whether through voters or commissioners — the community needs to have a public and open dialogue, and if that ends with additional funding for the airport and a well-understood vision the community can get behind, that would be a win-win for everyone.