Time to change governance structure of Grand Junction Regional Airport

By David Shepard

Turmoil at Grand Junction Regional Airport over the past few months and more, combined with unresponsiveness from the airport authority and airport manager, suggest it may be time to rethink the management structure of the airport.

At first glance, Director of Aviation Rex Tippetts’ tenure at the Grand Junction Regional Airport looks positive. The airport has enjoyed an influx of federal grant money. Upon further review, however, the harm inflicted on the community by Tippetts and a compliant airport authority far outweigh any good.

Recently, a new controversy surfaced over the issue of leases. Tippetts confirmed what many in the aviation community suspected — that routine renewal of leases for people who built hangars or other buildings on airport land will be difficult, if not impossible.

Tippetts stated in a Daily Sentinel interview that FAA regulations and state law prevent the airport from renegotiating leases. This position is unsupportable on any legal theory, and will come as a great surprise to the hundreds of public airports that routinely renew leases. It appears to me Grand Junction’s airport can renew leases if it wants to renew leases.

Who stands to gain if leases are not renewed? The airport, of course. Non-renewal of leases allows the airport to gain ownership of an estimated $21 million in improvements paid for by private citizens. The airport will be positioned to rent these hangars and buildings back to the very people who built them. That’s not fair.

Who loses, apart from airport tenants? The entire community loses.

Local governments will lose the hundreds of thousand dollars in tax revenue from these properties, a tax burden that will shift to others.

The community also loses by effectively ending private investment at the airport. No company will consider moving to Grand Junction, and establishing a corporate flight department, if our community says “come to Grand Junction, invest, so we can take what you build.”

In the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression, it might be a good idea to encourage investment and employment.

If the airport “undercharged” for land leases in the past, (and we’ve seen no credible survey to prove this) there is a simple remedy: Raise the rent going forward. Telling people to take their buildings and leave is silly. Citizens can’t vote for the airport board, but they are voting with their feet. One of two businesses that specialize in fixing small airplanes is gone. The local avionics shop is for sale. The building housing Colorado Airlines is for sale.

The lease issue is reminiscent of the way the airport handled the security fence. During that controversy, Tippetts also claimed to be a victim, someone allegedly forced to take an unpopular action by agencies beyond his control — in that case, the Transportation Security Administration. Later, the public learned from the airport’s own expert report that Tippetts neglected to formally request approval of less-intrusive security options.

The airport’s concern with regulation is highly selective and does not extend to the way it conducts business.

The airport’s application to the FAA for funds to build a wildlife-control fence didn’t contain all of the necessary information. Documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act confirm that the airport did not disclose to the FAA that biometric fingerprinting devices were part of the deal, which could violate federal law. Wildlife control via biometric fingerprint systems? Are we fingerprinting coyotes?

Airport authority members elected to not ask tough questions while enjoying the influx of federal largesse. Meanwhile, the usual minimum standards of good government are unmet.

Insufficient public hearings are held, an adequate public record of meetings is absent and basic standards of transparency and responsiveness are wanting.

I detect the whiff of bad government, with origins that go back to the creation of the Walker Field Airport Authority by the city of Grand Junction and Mesa County. That agreement failed to provide appropriate mechanisms to ensure the authority served the public interest. Supervisory authority was instead outsourced to an unelected board, leaving the airport director as one of the few senior public employees in the Grand Valley without any relationship to an elected official.

Good government begins with a basic premise: Citizens have a right to express themselves at the ballot box. The underlying structure of the airport authority thwarts basic democracy.

How should the community fix this oversight? It simply requires an act of political will by the City Council and Mesa County commissioners. The two bodies need to jointly develop a new management structure that places the airport under the ultimate supervision of the elected bodies that created it in the first place.

If the airport authority rejects reform, then it is time to cut off the allowance. The city and county should no longer passively sign grant applications (and accept related liability), until the airport authority agrees to the same level of accountability as other government entities.

Meanwhile, the city and the county should instruct appointees on the airport authority to:

✓ Revisit security issues and advocate for the least intrusive plan acceptable by the TSA.

✓ Encourage routine lease renewals because private airport investment encourages job creation and contributes to the tax base.

✓ Cleanup the basics by holding more public hearings, compiling a complete public record of meetings and allowing the sun to shine in.

✓ Apply widely accepted standards in evaluating employees like the airport director. Successful grant applications should not be the sole metric. Ask basic questions such as: Does the employee serve the community?

Good government begins and ends with serving the greater public interest and accountability. Perhaps it is time to focus on the basics.

David Shepard received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in economic planning and government regulation. He retired to Grand Junction where he owns a small aircraft and leases a hangar at the Grand Junction Regional Airport.


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