After years of lengthy meetings, indeterminate studies and caustic public debate, Kalispell’s city council balked when the time came to decide the municipal airport’s fate. Now residents will be asked in the November election to settle one of the most contentious topics in recent history.
In a surprising turn of events on May 21, the council passed a motion 5-4 to have residents choose what to do with the municipal airport in a citywide vote. The exact wording that will go on the ballot will be determined within a month and likely brought before council to approve June 18, according to City Attorney Charles Harball. Only residents within Kalispell city limits will be allowed to vote, according to city staff.
“I believe the owners of this property should have the say over how they want their property to be run,” said Councilor Bob Hafferman, who initiated the motion. “We’ve got a council that is divided on this issue and the only way we can get (a decision) is to put it to a vote to the people because I don’t see any give or take.”
Councilors Phil Guiffrida III, Tim Kluesner, Wayne Saverud and Mayor Tammi Fisher voted in support of Hafferman’s motion. After Fisher issued the final decisive vote, clapping and cheers emerged from a few people inside the crowded council chambers in City Hall. Few could have predicted this result.
Kluesner and Guiffrida, the two councilors from Ward 4, which is most affected by the airport, both supported rehabilitating the airport “in its existing footprint” instead of following Stelling Engineers’s master plan recommendations of making upgrades and additions in accordance to Federal Aviation Administration B-II standards. Kluesner, who presented a motion to minimally upgrade the airport, charged that Stellings’ report lacked accurate data and a solid fiscal analysis and made unsound predictions for future use.
“The options presented to us in the agenda motion are speculative, fiscally irresponsible, gives local control over to the federal government, ties the hands of future councils by making this a perpetual airport forever and shifts the intrusion of noise from one group of city residents to another,” Kluesner said.
Kluesner also called out the “inappropriate” use of money from the airport tax increment finance district that has been used to balance the airport’s budget every year since 2005. Part of the airport manager’s salary was paid with TIF funds before former City Manager Jane Howington made changes, Kluesner said. The airport was established as an enterprise fund, meaning it is supposed to be self-sustaining. However, for the past six years the airport budget has been aided by TIF monies, Kluesner said.
Fisher echoed Kluesner’s concerns and outlined a past history of unfinished business and irresponsible growth around the airport. She cited past airport master plans, including the 1979 Mini Airport Master Plan and the 1993 Airport Neighborhood Plan. Following the ’93 study, 11 tasks, or needs, were identified and today only two have been completed. Fisher also cited a 1991 letter from then FAA Manager David Gabbert that said Kalispell’s municipal airport should not be considered for FAA support because of environmental concerns and its close proximity to Glacier Park International Airport. Fisher wondered aloud why Kalispell has continued to develop around the airport.
“This plan is perhaps the worst laid land I have ever seen,” she said. “If the idea since the early 1990s was to expand the airport, why in the world were four subdivisions approved that surrounded the airport?”
And why is the city willing to aid the airport but not other enterprise funds, like the ambulance service? Fisher asked.
“We have been reticent to subsidize the ambulance at all and have told them to be self-sustaining,” she said. “But we have subsidized the airport with tax dollars for years and this would be a $2 million subsidy for local taxpayer dollars.”
Fisher called upgrading the airport according to recommendations, which would cost at least $2 million locally, a “government bailout of the airport whose revenues don’t even equate with its expenditures.”
“I cannot support an expansion of this airport from a fiscal perspective,” she said.
Nevertheless, Kluesner’s motion failed after only Guiffrida, Fisher and Hafferman voted in support.
Councilor Jeff Zauner expressed financial skepticism as well but remained supportive of recommended upgrades.
“I can’t give up on the airport. I support the airport,” he said. “I don’t fly. I have no desire to fly. I have no interests down there. However I believe that it is an economic driver for our community.”
Councilor Randy Kenyon also voiced support for FAA funding at the airport. He said government oversight is simply a reality everyone has to live with, using the U.S. Highway 93 Alternate Route as an example. He has faith that all the federal funding would arrive if the city met a few necessary tasks, including purchasing parcels of land adjacent to the facility.
“After reviewing all the info, I’m looking toward the future,” he said. “The decision we make here is not just for the immediacy. I’m looking 20, 30, 40 years down the road. We could have an airport we’re proud of. I think anything else would be shame.”
This story was updated May 25 with further details from Monday’s meeting.
Correction: In referencing the 11 tasks that were identified in a 1993 airport study, Fisher said only two have been completed, not “all but two.”
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