Save Money in this Sunday's paper

comments

Airport authority bill clears hurdle

N.C. Senate panel rejects plea from Charlotte officials to first study the effects of shifting control from the city

More Information

  • Airport change needs study, Charlotte officials say
  • Moody's: Merger could squeeze airport finances
  • Additional seats proposed for airport authority

    A new Charlotte Regional Airport Authority would have more members, and more from Mecklenburg County, according to a version passed by a Senate committee Wednesday.

    The latest version of the bill would create a 13-member board; an early version called for 11 members. Added were appointments from Lincoln and Iredell counties. They would join members from Cabarrus, Gaston, Union and Mecklenburg counties.

    The bill still gives the governor, the House speaker and the Senate president pro tem each an appointment. Under the new version, their appointments also would have to come from Mecklenburg. Jim Morrill



RALEIGH Despite appeals to slow down – and even a charge of “political malpractice” – a Senate panel Wednesday endorsed a bill to create a new Charlotte airport authority and strip control from the city.

By a voice vote, the Senate Rules Committee passed the bill sponsored by Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican. The bill now goes to the Finance Committee, which Rucho chairs, and if passed there, to the Senate floor.

The bill also would have to pass the House and be signed by Gov. Pat McCrory. So far, it’s on a fast track.

The Senate panel’s vote came on the same day Democratic Mayor Anthony Foxx, joined by Republican council member Andy Dulin and top city officials, asked Mecklenburg County lawmakers to study the proposal before approving it.

At stake is control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport, a sprawling enterprise that accounts for thousands of jobs and an estimated $10 billion a year in regional economic activity.

Its very success was cited by both proponents and opponents of the authority bill.

“What we want to be sure of is that the growth continues,” Rucho told the committee.

An independent management authority, he argued, would guarantee “experience, expertise and a clear focus” in guiding the airport after the retirement of Aviation Director Jerry Orr, who’s 71. The airport, he said, should not be “a part-time job for one of the assistant city managers.”

Orr reports to the city manager. Critics said the airport’s success has come under city management.

“To move this bill today would be an act of political malpractice,” Sen. Malcolm Graham, a Charlotte Democrat, told the committee. “Why are we about to break something that’s not broken?”

Part of the reason seems to be the prospect of Orr’s retirement.

Chuck Allen, US Airways’ Charlotte-based community liaison, said after the meeting that the airline “is pretty agnostic” on the authority vs. city question. The airline, which operates its largest hub in Charlotte, intends to merge with American Airlines.

“Management philosophy,” he said, is the key to a successful airport. Asked whether that philosophy could change after Orr is gone, he said, “It certainly is a concern.”

Earlier, Foxx appeared to acknowledge such concerns.

“We want to involve all our partners, including the newly formed American Airlines, in helping us … make the transition to the future,” he told lawmakers.

13-member authority

The bill would put the airport under control of a 13-member authority, with members appointed from Mecklenburg and five surrounding counties. It would give appointments to the governor, the speaker of the House and the Senate president pro tem.

It would transfer airport property from the city – which has overseen it since 1935 – and give the authority limited power of eminent domain.

“My concern is the speed and lack of deliberation with which we’re proceeding,” Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, told the panel. “It just sounds like more of a power grab by Raleigh of (something) best left under local control.”

In approving the bill, the rules committee rejected an appeal from Dulin to at least study the issue.

“Just take a breath and step back a little bit,” he said, “and give it some time and study.”

Earlier, Foxx made a similar appeal to a dozen of the 17 Mecklenburg lawmakers. Most of the lawmakers appeared open to the idea of studying the idea before proceeding.

Rucho and the bill’s House sponsor, GOP Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews, did not attend the 7:30 a.m. meeting. Foxx’s visit, not confirmed until late Tuesday, was not on the delegation’s original agenda. Brawley said he and some others weren’t aware the mayor was coming.

Foxx, a Democrat, urged lawmakers to study the bill.

“We do believe there may be consequences that may not have been contemplated,” Foxx told lawmakers. “It could be a Pottery Barn situation: If you break it, you bought it.”

He questioned, for example, whether an authority would be as responsive as the city to noise concerns of people living under a flight path.

Bond rating concerns

With Foxx were acting City Manager Julie Burch, Finance Director Greg Gaskins and police Chief Rodney Monroe.

Gaskins in particular talked about the importance to the airport of the city’s AAA bond rating, and the possible costs of losing that valuable rating by changing to an independent authority.

He said there could be implications from a transfer of control on the airport’s $800 million of debt.

At the Rules Committee meeting, Stein said state Treasurer Janet Cowell expressed concerns about the airport debt as well as other local bonds, should the authority bill pass.

Cowell could not be reached.

Other lawmakers asked about the reaction of the Federal Aviation Administration, which has expressed concerns about an airport authority in Asheville. Sen. Dan Clodfelter, a Charlotte Democrat, said a study would also review whether a regional authority should oversee airports in Monroe and Concord.

Several Democrats suggested they would support a study, and so did at least two Republicans.

Republican Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville, whose district includes the airport, said he would support a study. So did GOP Rep. Ruth Samuelson.

Later, she made it clear she doesn’t want a study delaying a decision beyond the current session.

“We’re not open to a city-funded study that takes six months,” she said.

Legislators hope to adjourn by June.

Morrill: 704-358-5059
Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

Have a news tip? You can send it to a local news editor; email local@charlotteobserver.com to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Charlotte Observer.

  Read more



Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

Have a news tip? You can send it to a local news editor; email local@charlotteobserver.com to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Charlotte Observer.

  Read more


Quick Job Search
Salary Databases