Government and Travel & Tourism

Expecting: airport authority finally may have a ‘birth’ date

Kent County commissioners could vote on it at end of August.

July 24, 2015
| By Pete Daly |
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It’s been a long gestation — longer, even, than that of an elephant — but it appears the new regional airport authority that will take over management of Gerald R. Ford International Airport may be “born” in late August, as a Kent County official put it.

County Administrator/Controller Daryl Delabbio said at a meeting last week the Kent County Board of Commissioners is expected to hold a required public hearing on the proposal in late August, after which the board may take the final crucial vote to establish the airport authority.

Once it is “born,” he said, it will go to work on key operational details, including terms of the lease of the airport to the new authority.

GFIA, located in southeast metro Grand Rapids, is the property of Kent County and will remain so, even under an airport authority, according to county officials.

The Gerald R. Ford International Airport Authority will be a government entity but will have no taxing power and cannot borrow money without the approval of the County Board of Commissioners, according to Tom Dempsey, corporate counsel for the county.

In September 2014, the Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the general concept of an airport authority being established to govern GFIA instead of the current county-appointed Aeronautics Board.

But the original idea goes back even further: In 2013, the Aeronautics Board set up a committee to study the pros and cons of a transition to an airport authority.

Business interests in and beyond Kent County — including The Right Place economic development agency — have long argued the airport is a vital economic service to the West Michigan region, not just Kent County, and thus its governing board needs to represent the larger region.

The argument was also made that an airport authority would have greater administrative flexibility than a county government and could respond more quickly to market and economic changes that affect airport operations and efficiencies.

County Assistant Administrator Mary Swanson said the public hearing on an airport authority is expected to be held Aug. 27 at the start of the regular county board meeting.

The hearing will go over the Articles of Incorporation of the new authority, and after listening to public comment, the board may then opt to take its final vote on establishing the airport authority at the same meeting.

Airport authorities previously have been established in Michigan, including Detroit Metro and the Capital Regional International Airport in Lansing.

Like others, Gerald R. Ford International Airport is licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration, which also has provided funding grants in the past for airport expansion and improvements.

FAA review of the plan and its approval is required for the transition to an airport authority.

The Michigan Legislature also had to enact legislation to allow it. The legislation was duly passed this spring and signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder.

The legislation states the Kent County Board of Commissioners will appoint the seven-person airport authority board and has the power to dissolve it by a two-thirds vote. No more than three airport authority board members may be elected officials and at least one must reside outside of Kent County in the Combined Statistical Area that includes the airport, as determined by the federal Office of Management and Budget.

Dempsey said the airport authority would represent a contiguous seven-county region that includes the cities of Holland, Muskegon, Big Rapids and Ionia, in addition to Greater Grand Rapids.

“These are all areas that have an economic relationship based on social and economic ties, and commuting patterns,” said Dempsey.

The overall region is determined by studying U.S. Census data.

At the meeting last week, County Commissioner David Bulkowski said he hopes the airport authority really does “reflect the region” it represents.

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