Commissioners once again approved a monetary bail out for the Schuylkill County Airport, aka Joe Zerbey Airport. In approving the money in a split vote, Commissioners Chairman Boots Hetherington mentioned that the money was intended to help the airport become financially self-sufficient.
The bailout is one of the latest handouts to the Airport as it’s apparently struggling to make ends meet.
In total on Wednesday, the Commissioners approved spending $181,689 to give to the Schuylkill Airport Authority. According to Republican Herald, the money is to “cover some of their additional costs” at Zerbey Airport.
Another Bailout for Schuylkill County Airport
Commissioners Hetherington and Gary Hess voted in favor of spending the money. Commissioner George Halcovage voted against it but didn’t indicate why.
The reason why he didn’t vote in favor of the spend could be a sign of an ongoing feud between he and Hetherington. Halcovage recently voted against putting more money toward farmland preservation, a move Hetherington championed.
During their public spat over that previous action, the Commissioners jabbed each other with mentions of things that could be considered their own pet projects. For Hetherington, it was that farmland preservation. And Halcovage’s seems to be the so-called broadband project that should have been at least started in 2020 but hasn’t even started now more than a quarter way through 2022.
On Wednesday, Boots gave a few reasons why he believes it’s important to give more money to the airport that seemingly hasn’t been able to fulfill any financial obligations it has with the Courthouse.
In the past, Hess has spoken of the importance of the airport, saying he believes it keeps Fortune 500 companies in Schuylkill County, noting their facilities’ proximity to the airport at Highridge business park. Hess says the airport keeps about 3,500 jobs in the area.
Obligations: $750K in Loans
Regardless of its alleged importance for Schuylkill County, the airport is racking up some big bills in recent years and lately, it’s having a hard time paying on its debt.
That all started soon after the COVID pandemic led to many businesses being closed by the government. In 2020, Hess said the airport had lost a tenant (but then replaced it) and went for months without any revenue, due to the pandemic restrictions.
Those obligations are two loans, one for a new hangar and other to extend a runway at the airport.
In 2013, County Commissioners granted the Airport Authority a $400,000 loan to build a new hangar at Zerbey Airport. Then, in 2018, another loan was taken out – $350,000 from Mid-Penn Bank – to extend a runway 501 feet.
Through the course of the pandemic, the Airport Authority has asked for forgiveness on loan payments it owes the County. Loans were taken out to build a hangar and extend a runway at the airport.
Here’s a look at the actions Commissioners have taken on those loan payments which were due but unable to be made by the Airport Authority. We’ve also noted budget adjustments approved by the Commissioners for the Airport Authority.
- July 8, 2020: Commissioners approve a budget adjustment of $44,264 to cover the cost of a payment on the Airport Authority’s $350,000 Mid-Penn Bank loan.
- Nov. 18, 2020: Commissioners vote to forgive a principal and interest payment on the Airport Authority’s $400,000 loan from the County for the new hangar. The amount forgiven is $20,293.
- April 28, 2021: Commissioners unanimously approve forgiveness to the Airport Authority on a 2013 hangar loan interest payment of $5,056. At the time of the vote, the Commissioners discussed this forgiveness. Halcovage said it was negotiating with the Airport Authority to ensure loan interest payments in the future wouldn’t have to be forgiven, maybe just deferred.
- May 5, 2021: Commissioners approve a budget adjustment, allocating the Airport Authority an additional $50,000.
- July 21, 2021: Commissioners OK’d a budget adjustment totaling $44,264 to the Airport Authority so it could cover a $350,000 Mid-Penn Bank loan.
- Nov. 4, 2021: Commissioners unanimously agree to forgive the principal and interest payment of $20,056 the Airport Authority was to make to the County to cover the $400,000 hangar loan.
The Million-Dollar Parking Paving Project
While the Airport Authority was unable to pay back these two big loans, the County didn’t stop agreeing to spend money there.
On June 23, 2021, Commissioners agreed to advertise for bids on reconstruction of Airport Rd., including work on a Park-n-Ride area. Those bids were announced at the July 14 meeting. Here’s a look at the bids as the County presented them:
On July 21, Commissioners voted to award Lehigh Asphalt Paving and Construction Co., of Tamaqua, the job at a cost of $1,074,420.73.
Then, on Sept. 15, the Commissioners approved a change order of $76,576.93 on this project. The change was to address additional work on the airport parking lot, including curb repair and replacement, additional base repair, ADA improvements and signage, lighting improvements, sign replacement, drainage structure repairs, upgrades, and cleaning.
On Oct. 13, the Commissioners again addressed the parking lot project. They amended an agreement with Alfred Benesch and Co. for professional engineering services for the Airport Rd. project. The amendment added $5,600 to the bill, to bring it to a total of $95,800. That money was needed due to “additional design changes to the airport parking lot,” according to meeting minutes from 2021.
Back in March 2020, the Commissioners agreed to hire the engineering firm at a rate of $80,200. The County said the Airport Rd. project would be funded from its Liquid Fuels account and partly from a $674,720 grant of the Multimodal Transportation Fund. Liquid fuels was to make up the difference of the project cost after the grant money was exhausted.
Then back in 2021, on Nov. 10, the Commissioners approved another change order for the paving project. This was for $23,060 for “longer guiderail posts and delineators.” These were necessary due to the elevation of the roadway and because the airport area is prone to fog, according to what the County said when approving the extra costs for the paving project.
A week later, on Nov. 17, the Commissioners approved several request on the Airport Rd. project, including increasing the encumbrance by $155,000. The County then reported the total project cost to be $1,259,857.66. That’s $185,436.93 more than the original price tag.
The County also extended the contracts for the two companies assigned to work on the Airport Rd. project: Alfred Benesch and Lehigh Asphalt.
Money Coming In
The County is trying to bring money in to the airport, for what it’s worth.
On Aug. 25, 2021, the Commissioners approved applying for a state Dept. of Community and Economic Development grant for up to $150,000 to help pay for upgrades and paving of a parking lot at Schuylkill County Airport.
In December, the county airport was awarded $159,000 from a federal grant. Rules for spending the grant money, however, won’t allow for it to pay down the debt. Instead, the money will be spent on creating a business plan to help make the facility financially self-sufficient.