TAWAS CITY – With some uncertainties surrounding the future of the Iosco County Airport, an appropriations request been posed to the municipalities in the area, to help fund the operations of the facility in 2022.

As reported, the matter was initially discussed by council members in both Tawas City and East Tawas, when they each conducted their Nov. 1 meetings.

Both entities decided to postpone any action until they received more information and, while officials in each community remarked that the airport is an asset they would like to see remain open, they also noted that it belongs to the county as a whole. Therefore, they wondered why only East Tawas, Tawas City and Baldwin Township were asked to chip in $5,000 each. Some of them expressed concerns with the county’s budgeting practices, as well.

When asked why these three municipalities were approached to contribute, but not the others, Iosco County Finance Director/Controller Jamie Carruthers-Soboleski said the county board of commissioners (BoC) felt that the communities directly surrounding the airport in East Tawas get the most benefits from it.

She also said the BoC’s standpoint on this relates to an economic study which was done several years ago by the Michigan Department of Transportation. The biggest economic impact is tourism, which entails people flying in and using these areas more than the other entities in the county.

Additionally, Oscoda and AuSable townships have their own airport, with the Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport, Soboleski continued, “and it’s just their opinion that the west side of the county doesn’t get the benefits that would be received here in the Tawases and Baldwin.”

Since then, she spoke with the BoC and they agreed to include the other units of government in their request.

When the Tawas City Council convened again on Nov. 15, City Manager Annge Horning said that Iosco County is still requesting a $15,000 appropriation, but have allocated it to all local municipalities in the county using a weighted average calculation of three factors. The formula is based on distance from the airport, at 80 percent; taxable value, 10 percent; and population, 10 percent.

According to this formula, the amount requested from Tawas City is now $1,684. While they did vote to contribute this, as a one-time payment, there were some remaining concerns and questions.

Related to the talks which have occurred, Horning also provided Tawas City’s results in the August and November 2020 elections, from the last time the county asked for an increase in the operating millage. It ended up not passing, but on Aug. 4, 2020, 49.69 percent of the votes in Tawas City were “yes”, while 50.31 percent were “no.” On Nov. 3, 2020, 51.03 percent of the city’s voters were in favor of the millage proposal, and 48.97 percent were opposed.

“So they were very close,” Horning said of the outcome.

Officials were also given a copy of the new appropriations request letter from the county, which was revised after they met earlier this month.

It is recognized in the communication that this is a short-term solution to the airport’s budgeting problems, and the letter also lists the long-term ideas that are being explored – which includes an operating millage on the August 2022 ballot.

Soboleski has explained that, among other items, the millage would secure funding for a continued general fund (GF) appropriation to the airport for operations.

The updated letter reiterates that the airport is county-owned and, in the past, has been funded through a combination of fuel sales, hangar rentals and county appropriations. Since 2016, the county has appropriated $213,152 from its GF, but with the continued financial shortfalls in the GF, the county cannot fund an appropriation from the GF in 2022.

“The County was not able to fund the airport in 2021, with the exception of the purchase of a new lawnmower to keep operations open,” Soboleski wrote.

“The current airport manager volunteered his time enabling the airport to remain open,” she stated of Jay Samuels, adding that this has been of tremendous value and that the county would like to begin compensating him in 2022.

“The County is able to make an appropriation out of its delinquent tax fund for 2022, but is requesting assistance from the local communities it feels receives financial benefits from those visiting the airport,” the message goes on. “The proposed County appropriation would be $15,000 and we are requesting a match appropriation of the local units within the County.”

As for some of the lingering questions, Tawas City Councilwoman Jackie Masich said that another entity expressed concern with the county budget. So, she viewed this document online.

“And I know they’ve told us that they were going to be looking to pay the contractual manager $30,000,” she said; however, the projected budget for 2022 shows this at $39,185, “which is a 24 percent increase over the last time they paid an airport manager.”

Masich said there were a couple other additional line items which didn’t make sense to her, as well.

“I know that we would like the airport to remain here,” she continued, pointing out an item previously mentioned by Soboleski. Based on deed restrictions on the property, if it is not an operating airport for six months or longer, it has to be deeded back to the U.S. Forest Service.

“But did they look at a part-time manager and whether that would be enough to keep it open and keep it going in our county?” Masich questioned.

Councilman Ed Nagy said he feels that the city should assist in supporting the budget. He acknowledged that there are concerns which have come up, but overall, he is supportive of keeping the airport open.

He added that this is a one-time request from the county, and he would feel differently about it if it were to be asked for again. “But I think the discussion that’s been generated, hopefully, will be acted on and these points that Jackie brought out and what have you will be straightened out.”

Councilman David Lesinski agreed in that, if the city approves an appropriation for the airport, he would only support doing so for one year.

“The county commissioners have to, somewhere along the line, decide they’re going to do things right,” he said, referencing some of the items which he considers to be issues with the last few years of the county budget, including the ambulance service millage.

“We don’t want to lose it,” Lesinski said of the airport. “It’s an asset.” So, he made a motion to approve a one-time payment of $1,684, for one year only, which was supported by Mayor Ken Cook and passed in a unanimous vote of the council.

Mayor Pro Tem Brian McMurray said he agreed with Masich and Lesinski that there are certainly some unknowns, but that he is also very supportive of keeping the airport in Iosco County.

He also remarked that he was glad Soboleski and Samuels attended the prior council meeting, that they listened and that the county came back with an alternative approach.

“And again, I don’t think we want to be the answer to the long-term problem,” McMurray went on, “but as a stopgap – I don’t know that they’ll get support from all the communities – but hopefully they’ll get enough that they can keep going until they can find a long-term solution.”

On that note, Masich said another question of hers is what will happen if Tawas City votes in favor of this, but the other entities do not.

McMurray said his guess is that it’s unlikely they will get everything they’re asking for, because that’s just the way things are. But hopefully there will be enough to sustain the operations in the coming year, until a long-term fix is established.

Councilman Chuck Klenow said it had been quite some time since he was at the airport, so he went there recently and met with Samuels.

Klenow said that Samuels has done an amazing job at the site, which has included putting in plenty of sweat equity by painting the buildings, performing various facility maintenance and so on. “He’s been doing all that.”

He said he also learned that if the airport were to close, it would open up a can of worms for the county because they built a series of hangars there in the past, with funds from individuals who were promised a lease-free environment for a period of time. If the airport shuts down, “then those hangars are of no use to anybody that’s using it; they put their own money into it for doing that.”

Klenow said he is very much in support of the airport, he doesn’t want the property to revert back to the Forest Service and that he was very pleased with what he saw when he met with Samuels.

Klenow shared that he had some of the same concerns as the other council members, and he agreed that they should consider a one-year, one shot type of situation when it comes to the appropriation request.

If it needs to be readdressed next year, he recommended coming back at it with full force in order to try to figure out what’s going on. “I still have no understanding of what the [BoC] did, the way that they did it; and that part I don’t support. But that’s not a part of this motion.”

Councilman Mike Russo also concurred with the remarks of fellow officials and noted that he, too, had a chance to talk with Samuels at the airport. “And I guess I came away with some similar opinions, as well.”

Russo said that it was by a slim margin, but the constituents of Tawas City did vote in favor of the most recent operating millage. So with that in mind, he can support the appropriation request.

“But I would support it for any of the other reasons that have been brought up, to this point, especially one year; that’s it. We’re done,” he elaborated.

“But I can’t emphasize enough that the county commissioners need to own their piece of this thing,” Russo said. “And I’d like them to feel, I guess, some ownership in that regard, that the local communities can’t be requested from year to year to fund something that should be funded through the county.”

As for the long-term solutions the county is exploring to help keep the airport up and running – as referenced in the Nov. 10 edition of this publication – Soboleski advised that these are promising but they do take time to implement.

“We are asking for these appropriations in hopes that we will have a better solution for long-term funding for the airport by the 2023 budget,” she stated in the letter to council members. “It is our hope that we will not have to reach out for assistance in 2023 but that depends on the success of our long-term plans.”

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