Government and Travel & Tourism

Kent County OKs budget, $20M bond

2015 budget got the nod, as did backing a $20 million bond issue for the airport.

November 21, 2014
| By Pete Daly |
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Airport
Gerald R. Ford International Airport is served by five passenger airlines with 120 daily scheduled non-stop flights to and from 24 major market destinations.

Several financial proposals came to a vote at the Kent County Board of Commissioners last week, not the least of which was the county’s 2015 budget. That passed unanimously without further discussion, which was not the case with the vote to back a $20 million bond issue for the Gerald R. Ford International Airport.

The budget for both operating costs and capital needs totals $363.9 million, a 1.7 percent increase over the current budget for 2014. The General Fund portion of the budget, which is covered by Kent County tax collections, calls for total expenditures of $160 million, with 2015 tax revenue expected to equal that amount. The current General Fund expenditures in 2014 are budgeted at $155 million.

The 2015 budget will require an operating millage on real estate of 4.2803, the same rate as 2014. Kent County Administrator/Controller Daryl Delabbio noted in a September county finance meeting that the operating millage has been the same for several years.

The commissioners gave perfunctory approval to amend the Winter 2014 tax bill with a .5 mill increase to pay for expanded services for the county’s military veterans, which was approved by voters at the general election Nov. 4. The Senior Millage allocation for 2015 also was approved without dissent, but a couple of commissioners had some concerns about the proposal to back the bond issue for the airport parking ramp.

District 9 Commissioner Nate Vriesman said he would vote no because “the level of debt at the airport is more than I’m comfortable with”— $168 million in bonded debt. “I think a more conservative approach is preferable.”

District 7 Commissioner Stan Ponstein also said he would vote no because the “mode of the new (airport) authority” is still unknown. “I don’t feel comfortable” voting to back the bond, he added.

District 1 Commissioner Theodore Vonk, who serves on the county-commission appointed Aeronautics Board of Kent County, said “the finances are in good order at the airport,” and he is not worried about the airport repaying the bonds.

A new structure of governance — an “airport authority” — is being considered to oversee the Gerald R. Ford International Airport instead of the existing Aeronautics Board. In September, the commissioners voted unanimously in favor of the general concept of an as-yet undefined airport authority, which has been proposed to include representatives from outside Kent County. GFIA has long been the property of Kent County and would remain so, even under an airport authority, according to county officials.

At that September meeting, some commissioners also noted they assumed the future airport authority, which is at least many months and perhaps more than a year away if the Michigan Legislature even allows it, would not have the authority to levy taxes on Kent County property owners.

Commissioner Roger Morgan, who chairs the Aeronautics Board, said then the intent is that the proposed airport authority would not be a taxing authority.

The Aeronautics Board wants to issue construction bonds for up to $20 million to put a roof on the top deck of the airport parking ramp. The airport plans to repay the bonds with annual revenue from a recent increase in airport parking rates, but by backing the bond, Kent County becomes legally responsible for the debt in the event of a default by the airport.

Commissioner Joel Freeman also said the airport is “healthy” but needs to be competitive with other airports in West Michigan. Proponents of the new airport authority include business owners who say it could be run more competitively — able to respond more quickly to changing business conditions — if it was not under the administrative restrictions of being a county enterprise.

County Commission vice-chair Jim Saalfeld, also a supporter of the county backing the proposed airport bonds, noted The Right Place economic development agency has said repeatedly the airport “is probably the community’s No. 1 economic tool” for bringing business into the region.

“We are not giving (the airport) any money here,” said County Commission chair Dan Koorndyk last week. “All we are doing is letting them use our triple A bond rating,” which would give the airport a better interest rate.

As the board was voting 17 to 2 in favor of backing the airport roof bonds, a heavy snowstorm was visible through the windows. Airport Executive Director Brian Ryks commented after the meeting, “We could use (the new roof) today.”

Ryks said the one dollar price increase in parking, which was effective two years ago, generates $750,000 a year.

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