In the latest turn of a long, winding saga, Kalispell’s city council last week reversed an earlier decision to let residents decide the municipal airport’s fate. The council could revisit the issue as early as July 16.
Council voted 5-4 on July 2 to rescind the citywide vote, with Wayne Saverud playing the decisive role once again. On May 21, Saverud was one of five councilors who voted in favor of letting residents choose what to do with the 83-year-old airport in the November election. But after second thought Saverud joined sides with those opposed, including Kari Gabriel, Jim Atkinson, Jeff Zauner and Randy Kenyon. Saverud called the first decision “premature” and said the ramifications were not properly vetted. For example, Saverud cited the city’s cost to add an initiative to the ballot, which was later found to be an estimated $10,000.
Atkinson originally asked council to consider rescinding the citywide vote at a recent work session, saying it’s the councilors’ duty to “make these decisions, make wise decisions and go forward.”
Mayor Tammi Fisher, Phil Guiffrida III, Bob Hafferman and Tim Kluesner opposed repealing.
Hafferman described the contentious fate of the airport as too complex for a nine-person council to determine.
“How many of you are confident that you know what the majority of 10,000 electors wants?” Hafferman asked.
Kluesner called the decision to rescind “disingenuous” to residents and said there’s now the possibility a “sleeping giant” could emerge in the form a citizens referendum. Residents can add a measure to an election ballot if they gather signatures from 15 percent of registered voters. There are currently 12,181 registered Kalispell residents, according to the Flathead County Election Department. That would mean a referendum would need roughly 1,800 signatures to appear on the ballot.
In this scenario, the council would have no control over the ballot’s wording, which could lead to a stark outcome, like the airport’s closure, Kluesner said.
“We may lose the airport,” he said. “Just be aware that those are outcomes that could happen.”
Councilors are back at the crossroads of a decades-long controversy. Two directions appear in sight. One would upgrade and expand the airport using federal funds to recommended B-II design standards in the latest master plan update by Stelling Engineers. This option would cost $15.1 million and Kalispell could be eligible for up to $13.5 million in federal reimbursements. Local taxpayer cost would be estimated at $2.6 million.
A second option would use local funds to maintain the airport and stay within the site’s current framework and condition, keeping within the boundaries of lease agreements the city has through 2025. The local taxpayer cost would be estimated at $2 million.
If an upgrade to federal standards were to occur, Kalispell would be eligible for up to $2.9 million for past expenditures and annual maintenance funding of $150,000.
The current aviation forecast does not show a full need to upgrade to B-II standards, according to the latest master plan, but upgrading would make the current facility safer.
However, moving forward with the proposed B-II upgrades would be contingent on 17 adjacent landowners agreeing to sell their property. If one landowner held out, the entire project would be halted.
There’s also concern over how Tax Increment Finance funds would play a role in financing changes at the airport. Would TIF dollars be best used to pay the local cost? What would happen if the city did not receive all reimbursements?
Skeptics have seized on these fiscal concerns not included in Stelling’s latest report.
The airport has been the focus of four different studies in the last 30 years. Fisher recently presented a six-page explanation for why she believed the airport has been mishandled in previous years, and for why upgrading would perpetuate that irresponsibility. She highlighted passages in previous master plans that expressed the same financial and environmental concerns being talked about today.
“Throughout the 1996 analysis, funding problems for the airport are discussed repeatedly,” she said. “The airport didn’t generate enough revenue to fund the $2 million in upgrades it desired. The revenue issues have not been resolved (today).”
Perhaps most notable, though, was a letter Fisher came across from 1991. David Gabbert, manager of the Federal Aviation Administration’s office in Helena, wrote then-Mayor Doug Rauthe about federal funding through the Airport Improvement Program for site upgrades. Gabbert laid out concerns the FAA had with Kalispell’s airport and recommended the city move forward with minimal expansion. Their specific concerns were the close proximity of Glacier Park International Airport, the capability of meeting minimum agency standards and/or expanding and environmental and safety concerns, such as Flathead High School and residences and the radio towers to the south.
“To use (federal funds) to develop an airport to accommodate the activity presently existing, and anticipated for the next 20 years at a ‘close in’ location, is not good planning,” Gabbert wrote.
Since that letter, Fisher noted growth around the airport, like housing subdivisions, that have only increased those environmental and safety concerns.
“You cannot move toward expansion all the while socking in the airport with new subdivisions,” she said. “It doesn’t mix.”
For more information about the city airport, visit www.kalispell.com.
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