Economic Development, Government, and Travel & Tourism

Airport authority nears reality

Legislation in the Senate will allow expanded management of local airports statewide.

May 29, 2015
| By Pete Daly |
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The Michigan Senate is poised to vote on enabling legislation that passed easily in the House in May to allow establishment of regional airport authorities to manage business operations of local airports, instead of limiting it to county boards.

The legislation will apply to all county-owned airports in Michigan if approved in the Senate and signed into law.

The change in state law is required to allow the creation of a regional authority governing Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Kent County, a change that’s been under discussion for years.

The Kent County board voted last September in favor of the proposed regional airport authority.

“Giving local communities a louder voice in the operation of local airports can do wonders for a regional economic asset like the Gerald R. Ford International Airport. This legislation is a big win for the greater Kent County area. With it, we can continue to make sure one of the drivers of the region’s economy is well managed and continues growing,” said State Rep. Rob VerHeulen, R-Walker, who introduced the bill in the House.

Driving the change is the accepted fact that GFIA has an economic impact on the entire region, not just Kent County. The proposed GFIA airport authority board would have at least one member from outside Kent County.

“From my perspective, this makes it more of a regional asset than simply a Kent County asset — which is why it had the support of folks like The Right Place and so forth. It impacts all of western Michigan,” said VerHeulen.

As spelled out in the enabling legislation, local governments could create a dedicated board focused solely on aeronautic operations that includes representation from surrounding communities.

While such boards would not have the ability to levy taxes, they would be considered public bodies subject to the Freedom of Information Act, according to a news release issued by VerHeulen’s staff.

Kent County will still own the airport but would lease it to the airport authority for a nominal amount, such as one dollar a year, according to testimony at previous county board meetings.

“The airport will be self-sufficient” financially, as it now is, according to VerHeulen.

“It has no taxing authority,” he added.

Kent County does not provide any direct funding to the airport. GFIA generates its operating revenues from a variety of sources that include parking fees, airline fees and tenants such as TSA, FAA and others, according to Kent County Administrator/Controller Daryl Delabbio.

The new GFIA authority will be responsible for the budget and “will not have the authority to commit Kent County” to any of its financing plans, said VerHeulen, who has worked as a corporate attorney and previously served as mayor of Walker.

“So if they are going to issue a bond” for capital expenditures, “they do not have the authority to bind Kent County” to that bond “without the Kent County Board of Commissioners saying, ‘Yes, we choose to be bound,’” said VerHeulen.

“If they choose to do a capital improvement, they have to do it on their own arrangements. They can’t look to the county and say, ‘Hey, we need $50 million,’ or what have you.”

“Gerald R. Ford International Airport generated more than $3.1 billion in direct and indirect economic impact to the region and supported more than 40,000 jobs in the past year,” said Kent County Commissioner Roger Morgan, chair of the county’s existing Airport Board.

“The airport is this region’s most valuable economic and transportation asset. We need flexibility to develop policies and procedures tailored specifically to meet the needs of an increasingly competitive environment. We believe a business-focused board with commercially oriented policies will encourage a more entrepreneurial, business and hospitality management focus that is more conducive to customer service and air service development,” said Morgan.

“The Kent County Board of Commissioners continues to view this proposed change as one of our top priorities in 2015,” said Dan Koorndyk, chair of the Kent County Board of Commissioners.

“Over the course of the last two years, we have engaged in studies and discussion regarding the best governance model for the airport. The current model has brought us to this point, but to be stronger on a regional level, we need to investigate our practices and determine what is best for business and for the county. We truly appreciate the efforts of West Michigan lawmakers for taking action quickly and showing bipartisan support for this proposal,” said Koorndyk.

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