In a move that surprised absolutely no one, Schuylkill County Commissioners ultimately decided to unanimously approve $146,432 from their “Contingency Fund” to the Airport Authority as that organization struggles to achieve self-sufficiency.
The approval, however, wasn’t the typical rubber stamp “Yes” that most motions before the board get.
Prior to Wednesday’s vote, as requested last week, several members of the Airport Authority board responded to a call to address the Commissioners about their request for the additional funds.
Noble Quandel spoke to the Airport Authority’s Mission Statement. Eric Seitzinger, another board member, noted the Airport’s role in serving organ transplant transportation.
Airport Funds Were Apparently Approved During Budget Negotiations – But the Public Never Knew
According to Commissioner Barron Hetherington, the money the board approved on Wednesday was apparently budgeted for during the 2023 Budget negotiations last December.
It’s impossible for anyone from the public to know that since the word “Airport” doesn’t appear anywhere in the County Budget — at least not the one the public had to fight to get access to several months ago.
County Administrator Gary Bender said last week that the money had been budgeted but wasn’t released to the Airport Authority until it was requested. Why that is a process remains a mystery.
Regardless, the money is on its way to the Airport Authority, which has received more than $183,000 in County bailout money since 2020.
Commissioner George Halcovage — who did vote to approve the funding in the end, namely because he believed it had already been budgeted — issued a statement on the proposal prior to the vote.
“One of the concerns that I’ve had is that we’re giving additional monies … but there’s no income coming in and that’s going to go on to the taxpayers,” he said prior to his vote.
Halcovage added that with the money given, the County is just getting it back when the Airport Authority repays its loan to the County. That’s payments on a loan the County granted the airport in 2013 for $400,000 to build a new hangar.
“It’s a bit frustrating that we’re giving money and just getting it back,” he said. “I’m concerned about where we’re moving forward.”
In comments to the contrary from Hetherington and Commissioner Gary Hess, they noted the supposed economic benefits of having the airport for Schuylkill County.
One of the talking point lines Commissioners — or anyone that supports the airport regardless of its financial health — have repeated for years is that having it and it being so close to the Highridge Industrial Park brings business to Schuylkill County.
Hess noted that in separate comments Wednesday. He says he’s been at the airport at times when “a number of CEOs” of the companies located at Highridge will land at Schuylkill County Airport, go to the industrial park and “do their business within 2-3 hours and fly back out to one of their other Fortune 500 companies.”
He mentioned that because Halcovage cited a purported survey taken by one of the members of the Airport Authority board that apparently said no companies would leave Highridge if there wasn’t a Schuylkill County Airport.
Halcovage did laud the ongoing efforts of the Airport Authority board and wasn’t critical of them, per se. But he said, “We have a responsibility to the taxpayers. We’ve got to utilize our monies properly. We need to find a way to make it economically feasible that it’s not costing taxpayers any additional money. We need to really have another sit-down. I want to get more of a grasp of where we’re at from a financial standpoint.”
Hess and Hetherington argued that patience is important in allowing the Airport Authority to get financially stable.
“It takes time,” Hess said, adding that it “doesn’t happen overnight. I think it’s a great investment to have a public transportation up there. I believe in looking into the future. To have that there for future generations, to have that there in the County, that we’re not a backward County, that we’re also looking forward to move forward.”
Hetherington said in defense of the money allocation, “Folks, airport are not profit centers. Really, OK? My friends, my colleagues in Berks County are facing an $8 million deficit in their operation at their airport. It does support our industries.”
Now, no one at this meeting or in the past said that airports are “profit centers.” And the argument here is whether or not the Schuylkill County Airport can be self-sufficient. That’s a lot different than it generating any sort of profit.
He also defended the Airport Authority members and called them “the brightest minds” available. “They are not just sitting on their thumbs, not doing anything. I commend what they do. I support them a thousand percent.”