The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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September 22, 2013

Airport officials weigh options to keep Greenbrier tower open2

BECKLEY — Yet another deadline is looming for three West Virginia air-traffic control towers, as the end of the federal fiscal year is little more than a week away. If the latest budget impasse cannot be overcome in Washington, local officials fear they’ll be left scrounging for funding for the tower at Greenbrier Valley Airport in Maxwelton, as will operators at airports in Wheeling and Parkersburg.

All three airports were threatened with the loss of federal financial support for tower operations earlier this year, but were pulled back from the brink when the U.S. Department of Transportation announced in early May that funding for the small contract towers would continue until Oct. 1, when the new fiscal year begins.

Asked what the odds are for federal funding beyond Oct. 1, Greenbrier Valley Airport manager Jerry O’Sullivan grimly told The Register-Herald Friday afternoon, “Not good.”

He noted, “It’s a Washington issue, and they have a million items to settle before they get to airport towers.”

The members of the Greenbrier County Airport Authority will convene in emergency session Friday, only four days before the end of the fiscal year, O’Sullivan said.

“They’ll discuss alternative ways of funding our tower,” he explained, noting, “We realize the tremendous stress this situation means for our four tower operators — not knowing their ongoing employment situation. We’re trying to reassure them that we’re working to ensure the tower will remain open.”

O’Sullivan said he expects the authority to review several bids from companies willing to continue operating the tower and, once the probable costs are known, to “consider all options.”

Unless the federal budget snarl is untangled before then, the authority’s Friday meeting is slated to begin at 5 p.m. at the airport.

“If we have to fund (the tower) out of airport money, I don’t know how long we can do it,” O’Sullivan admitted. “Who knows how long this (federal budget impasse) will drag out.”

The airport’s annual budget is around $3 million, while the tower costs the federal government some $600,000 a year to operate via a contractor.

Dryly noting that continuing to pay for the tower’s operation with federal funds is the airport’s best option, O’Sullivan said he expects the authority to also discuss the possibility of asking the Greenbrier County Commission for some money, presumably out of the county’s Arts and Recreation Fund. That money comes from a 3 percent tax assessed on guests at the county’s lodging establishments.

If the federal government doesn’t come through, the airport might also look to the state Aeronautics Commission, which made a commitment in the spring to offer West Virginia’s three threatened facilities a total of $100,000 as a 50/50 match to other funding sources. The state funding was to kick in June 15 — the date on which the three towers were to have lost federal funding — and end Oct. 1 with the start of a fresh fiscal year.

O’Sullivan said the Aeronautics Commission is supposed to meet Oct. 9 in Elkins, at which time members “may consider funding for the three towers.”

— E-mail: talvey@register-herald.com

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