The Manhattan City Commission voted 4-1 at a special meeting Tuesday evening to allow city manager Ron Fehr the discretion to allocate provisionary funding from different parts of the city’s budget to prepare for the expenses of larger aircraft at Manhattan Regional Airport later this year.
Mayor Usha Reddi and commissioners Linda Morse, Mike Dodson and Karen McCulloh voted in favor of the motion, while commissioner Wynn Butler voted against it, citing concerns that the motion did not protect against the possibility of the commission’s potential use of property tax funds for security costs in the future.
Following ExpressJet Airlines’ announcement that they will begin operating three daily 65-seat flights out of Manhattan in May, the city commission was put under pressure at its Feb. 7 meeting to find ways to accommodate the larger aircraft, both in terms of operation and security. The security upgrades required a deadline of 90 days for implementation or the airline would cancel its plans for the larger flights.
Fehr said he received communication from ExpressJet Airlines Thursday that said if the airport wanted the larger airplanes, the city would need to make a decision by that day.
“I made the executive decision to accept the larger airplanes and do what was necessary for the security for those planes,” Fehr said.
Last week, commissioners were presented with estimated costs of $2 million for implementation of security equipment, facilities and personnel, but after a week of further study, airport director Jesse Romo provided a lower estimate of $327,844.90 per year.
While the airport looked to reduce costs at every aspect of the project, the estimate was much lower due to the Transportation Security Administration’s willingness to work with the airport to reduce initial costs, especially in regard to building a utility road around the perimeter fence.
“I appreciate all of the tough questions that were asked (at the city commission meeting) last week,” Romo said. “From that discussion, the TSA actually did go back and watch the commission meeting that night and learned about the challenges that a community our size having to go meet the minimum amounts of those requirements. They said, ‘Let’s continue to work together and continue shaving some of that stuff off for you.’”
Another possibility for the city to reduce security costs would be to contract security personnel instead of paying for a Riley County police officer to be stationed at the airport.
With the 2017 budget already set, the motion Tuesday allows Fehr to pull funding from other city sources to make the necessary security upgrades in time for the first of the larger flights in May. Due to a relatively mild winter, the city has about $160,000 it can put toward the security improvements that it had expected to put toward purchasing road salt for icy roads.
The commission looked at how the city might provide security funds for the airport in the future. Butler said he was concerned that future funding for the security upgrades may eventually come from increases in the city’s property taxes.
“My concern is that this will end up being a mill levy increase,” Butler said. “I don’t have a problem with this motion that’s saying we’re going to do all of (security upgrades), but who’s saying we won’t raise the mill levy in 2018?”
During public comment, Manhattan resident John Ball said it will be tempting for the commission to use property tax funds in the future.
“I certainly agree that we need to continue investing in our airport,” Ball said. “The funding is fungible, which means that if we spend money at the airport, we’re not going to spend that money on something else, unless we identify either an additional revenue source or we increase taxes of some kind, generally property tax, which seems to keep going up.”
The commission will revisit funding for the airport’s upgraded security at a future meeting.
In other action
The city commission heard a report from the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce concerning the city’s economic development. The Chamber will begin to provide similar quarterly reports to the commission. Lyle Butler, president of the Chamber of Commerce, said the city’s unemployment rate is between 2.4 and 2.8 percent — a relatively low rate compared to state and national averages.
In a presentation on the city’s preliminary budget for 2018, Bernie Hayen, director of finance for the city, said the city government is ahead of other cities in planning for the upcoming effects of the tax-lid law, which prohibits city and county governments from raising spending each year by more than a special rate set by the state without first allowing the public to vote on the raises. The tax lid will begin in January 2018.