By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The woes of the Havre City-County Airport are many, and solutions are in short supply.
"We're an airport that is really falling through the cracks," said Hill County Commissioner and airport board member Kathy Bessette, citing the airport's numerous needs and lack of available funding.
There is the leaking roof at the terminal building, along with its inefficient windows and insulation. The airport's largest hangar - erected in 1939 - suffers from similar shortcomings. Then there is the reliance on airport vehicles that are decades old, and the recent dramatic increase in airport insurance costs.
"We're kind of caught in the middle. Something needs to be done, and there's no money to do it," board secretary Lowell Swenson said during an interview this week.
The airport board maintains that having a full-service airport in Havre is critical to the community.
The airport handles two daily flights by Big Sky Airlines, the region's only commercial passenger carrier; four weekly flights by Exec Air, which carries parcels for UPS; and daily flights by Alpine Air, which carries mail under contract with the U.S. Postal Service. The U.S. Border Patrol keeps two planes and a helicopter there and makes daily flights. Other government agencies, including federal officials visiting Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, also utilize the airport.
Three different emergency medical flight carriers use the airport an average of five total flights a week. Railroad workers, college dignitaries and business executives also frequently fly into Havre, as do a number of hunters and private pilots.
Many people are unaware of the amount of traffic that uses the airport, and how critical those flights are to the region, Bessette said.
"It's essential the public recognizes the importance of having the airport in this community," she said.
The airport operates on an annual budget of about $66,000, with insurance, utilities and loan repayments accounting for more than half of that figure. The board manages to scrape together enough money to cover the airport's operating expenses, but can't afford desperately needed maintenance projects, said airport manager Bill Arvin.
"Our biggest problem is we don't have the money to maintain what we have, and that hurts us," he said.
Grants from the Federal Aviation Administration have in the past funded projects like rebuilding runways and installing up-to-date landing lights, but building and equipment maintenance projects have not been eligible for federal funds.
The projects that were eligible came with a catch: The grants required a 10 percent local match. A $2.25 million runway project in the mid '90s forced the board to borrow more than $200,000. The board borrowed an additional $12,000 in 2001 to fund a paving project.
"They were much needed projects and the only way to fund them was to borrow," Swenson said.
Now, repaying those loans eats up 22 percent of the airport's annual budget, Swenson said, adding that the current outstanding debt totals nearly $50,000.
'Caught in the middle'
A federal bill expected to pass Congress this month would change how aviation grant dollars can be spent, but the changes would not help many smaller airports, Swenson said. The bill would allow airports to spend federal grant money to repair or construct terminals, but only if the airport meets a daily 2,500-passenger quota. With two daily commercial flights - each with less than 19 passengers - the Havre City-County Airport terminal would be not eligible for funding under the new law.
"The current bill will allow terminal maintenance, but we're too small of an airport, so once again we're caught in the middle," Swenson said.
Provisions in the bill that would apply to the city-county airport would allow grant money to be spent on hangar maintenance and repair, and also decrease the local match requirement to 5 percent.
But the reduction in the required match isn't particularly helpful to an airport with a budget of $66,000 if a maintenance project is expensive, Swenson said. Board members said they would like to see the roof of the largest hangar sealed with spray foam insulation, a costly repair.
Even if a grant were secured to fund it, the 5 percent local match would be crippling to a budget with no wiggle room for maintenance costs, Arvin said. Several years ago, the leaks at the hangar became so severe the board reroofed a small portion of it - to the tune of $9,200.
"It was coming down like rain," said Brian Moore, who operates Havre Flying Service and rents the western half of the hangar. Havre Flying Service fuels about five planes a day and sells about 80,000 gallons of fuel a year, he said.
"The worst part was patched up, and once again they could only afford to fix the part of the hangar that was the worst," Swenson said. "Then you get another part of the roof that starts leaking."
The leaks and disrepair are rapidly becoming more than an inconvenience, Arvin said.
"I'm not trying to find money so I can have a good time," he said. "We need money for basic maintenance."
The fact that no federal money can be used to repair the terminal building, which is leased by Big Sky Airlines, further frustrates the airport board. The estimated cost of repairing the roof of the building and installing energy-efficient windows is $47,000.
"I think we're going to have to intervene shortly," Swenson said. "I don't know how long they can stay in there with a roof in that bad of shape."
Terminal guests are treated to visible water stains on the ceiling and carpet. Big Sky has brought the problem to the attention of the airport board on several occasions, Swenson said.
The airline pays $300 a month to use the terminal, or more than 10 percent of the airport's non-tax revenue.
The large hangar is not the only hangar that suffers from disrepair. Several other smaller structures owned by the airport also need work, said board chair Bob Breum. One wooden hangar is rotting and needs new siding, he said.
Board members question whether it would be wise to take out additional loans to pay for building repair and maintenance.
"So much of their budget right now is repaying the current debt, so it would make it hard, if you're borrowing more money, to come up with more money to repay the additional loans," Swenson said.
Both the city and county have reached the legal limits that they can tax to support the airport. If they allocated more money for the airport, it would have to come from other departments, Swenson said.
The board could ask the voters to approve a bond issue or a tax hike for the airport. But, Bessette said, voters would be unlikely to support such a measure.
About half of the airport's annual budget - $33,000 - is levied in taxes from county and city residents. The rest comes from lease agreements, hangar rentals, and crop sales.
In addition to the building issues, Arvin must also deal with vehicle repair problems. For instance, the 1955 tractor he uses to cut grass needs a new tire, and no money is budgeted for its replacement, he said. The 1987 truck used to plow snow will need new blade edges next year, at $500 apiece. The Dodge truck used for garbage disposal runs well for its age, but has been repaired so many times that Arvin has lost count.
"You can maintain it for so long, but it's like an old lawn mower - how long before the dang thing falls apart?" he said.
Insurance and utilities - once considered by the board to be fixed costs - have risen dramatically in recent years, further complicating the airport's budget issues.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, airport insurance skyrocketed. Liability insurance for the Havre City-County Airport increased by 103 percent, even after the airport changed carriers, and property coverage went up 334 percent, Swenson said.
Liability insurance for the airport costs $4,475, and property coverage costs $4,680. Insurance premiums now consume 15 percent of the board's total budget.
Moore encountered similar problems. Havre Flying Service sells aviation fuel and other supplies, which by law must be insured.
"The companies I was with completely stopped selling commercial aviation insurance," he said. He was forced to purchase more expensive coverage from other companies.
Reliance on Congress
Compounding the budget shortfalls is the fact that, to a some degree, the solvency of the city-county airport will be determined by the U.S. Congress. Not only is the airport's only passenger service dependent on an federal subsidy program that has been threatened with elimination, but also new regulations could require the airport to hire emergency response personnel - an expense the airport cannot afford.
Big Sky Airlines operates under Essential Air Service, a federal program that subsidizes airlines for each unfilled seat on regional flights in rural areas. The program operates on an annual basis, and has been on the congressional chopping block during the past several years. The EAS program was funded again this year, but airport board members agree the issue will come up again.
Since only a handful of seats on each flight to and from Havre are filled, Big Sky would likely have to scrap its service to the city if federal subsidies were cut, airline president Craig Denney said earlier this year.
Local leaders are concerned about the repercussions that would create.
"We would lose revenue from office space, but the biggest thing is just the connection for people getting in and out of Havre," Swenson said. "We don't have a lot of alternatives these days. We have Amtrak, or you can drive somewhere else."
"Transportation is important," he said. "It would have the same effect as not having the railroad, to get right down to it."
Businesses interested in expanding to Havre might be dissuaded by a lack of commercial air service, he added.
Another provision in the upcoming aviation bill would require all airports to have emergency response teams present during each take-off and landing. Although grant money is available to fund vehicles and equipment, the airports would be stuck with the costs of paying for personnel to use them.
Such an expense is far beyond the financial resources of the Havre City-County Airport, Bessette said. Rural legislators are seeking an exemption for smaller airports, and it is expected to pass, she added.
The exemption would apply to small towns if the local fire department could respond to the airport within 15 minutes.