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Charlotte airport bill flies to Senate floor as foes ask for time

RALEIGH Despite appeals to slow down, and even a warning that it was “playing with fire,” a North Carolina Senate panel Wednesday endorsed a bill that would put Charlotte’s airport under a regional authority.

“They absolutely bum-rushed it through,” Charlotte City Council member Andy Dulin, a Republican, said after the vote.

The bill, sponsored by GOP Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews, would transfer control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport from the city of Charlotte to an independent, 13-member authority.

It could reach the Senate floor as early as Thursday.

The city has run the airport since 1935. Rucho said the change would ensure that it continues to run efficiently after the retirement of Aviation Director Jerry Orr, who’s 72. Rucho told the Finance Committee, which he co-chairs, that for an authority, unlike the City Council, the airport would be the sole responsibility.

Critics said there are too many unanswered questions. A big one involves bonds.

The airport has more than $800 million in outstanding debt, financed by the city with airport revenue bonds. It’s unclear what would happen to those bonds.

A Senate aide told senators a “best case” would involve a simple transfer of bonds from the city to an authority. A “worst case,” she said, might mean the bonds would have to be recalled and re-issued.

“That’s playing with fire,” said Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, a Concord Republican who supports the idea of an authority. Until more is known about bond covenants, he added, “We’re violating the dad-gum constitution again.”

Questions over bonds

In a letter to Charlotte officials Tuesday, bond counsel Donald Ubell said there is no legal provision in the bond order for transferring the debt from the city to an authority. The city could ask bondholders for their consent, he wrote, but given the amount of debt, that would be impractical.

“The City will be in default under the Bond documents if such a … transfer takes place without bondholder consent,” Ubell wrote.

“When you don’t have the answer to the question of whether this legislation would create a default on over $700 million worth of bonds, it’s irresponsible to vote,” Democratic Sen. Dan Clodfelter of Charlotte said afterward. “You need to know the answer before you vote, not after.”

An official from the state Treasurer’s office could not be reached. Sources said Treasurer Janet Cowell, a Democrat, spoke with Rucho about the bonds on Tuesday.

Rucho said he’ll be able to answer the bond questions when the bill hits the Senate floor or when it reaches the House.

“There are additional opportunities,” he said.

While most airport construction has been with bonds financed by airport revenues, Clodfelter said the city also helped develop the airport with general obligation bonds, backed by city taxes. He said Charlotte’s airport, unlike authority-run airports in Raleigh-Durham and Greensboro, falls entirely within city limits, giving the city control of surrounding development. “The only entity able to balance both those interests in the city of Charlotte,” he said.

City wants a study

Others appealed for a delay.

“There seems to be a sufficient amount of questions that have not been answered,” said Sen. Joel Ford, a Charlotte Democrat.

Dana Fenton, a lobbyist for the city, also asked for time. He said Mayor Anthony Foxx and City Council members asked the city manager Monday to develop a plan for a city-funded study and report back next week.

Fenton alluded to an earlier study by the Governor’s Logistics Task Force, chaired by former Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton and including Orr.

A report in December addressed governance of transportation hubs such as the $90 million intermodal facility under way at Charlotte Douglas. When finished, it will link air, freight and interstate trucking to and from three major ports – Jacksonville, Fla.; Savannah, Ga.; and Charleston.

The Task Force concluded that “no local government should control or regulate the development of those regional assets.” But, it added, “further investigation and legal expertise is needed.”

The committee, controlled by Republicans, approved the bill after a voice vote. GOP Sen. Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville praised Rucho as “somewhat a visionary” for sponsoring the bill.

If the full Senate passes the bill Thursday, it would go to the House, where Republican Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews is the lead sponsor. Because it’s a so-called local bill, affecting fewer than 15 counties, it would not go to Gov. Pat McCrory, Charlotte’s former mayor.

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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