DOBSON — Nearly the entire Mount Airy-Surry County Airport Authority resigned under pressure on Friday or will not be reappointed to the airport board.
Airport Authority member of 27 years Don Holder said on Friday he and four other members of the airport authority were summoned to the Surry County Government Center on Friday where they each met with county officials and Commissioners Larry Johnson and Larry Phillips, who represent the Mount Airy District on the Surry County Board of Commissioners.
According to Holder, he, airport chair John Springthorpe, Victor Zamora, Thomas Taylor and Nolan Kirkman, all five of whom are county appointees to the board, either signed letters of resignation or — in the cases of Taylor and Zamora — were told they would not be reappointed to their seats. The three letters of resignation had been prepared in advance by county staff.
Thomas Jackson and Greg Perkins, who were appointed to the airport board by the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners, will continue to serve.
Holder said the plan which was relayed to him is to fill the vacancies created by the five resignations with the members of the county board.
In an interview, Phillips confirmed the county board’s plan is to install themselves in the five seats.
County officials have raised concerns about the airport during public meetings the past few months. The county board also instructed County Manager Chris Knopf to renegotiate the interlocal agreement between the county and city which sets up the organization for the airport board.
Phillips said Knopf was unable to make any headway in those negotiations.
However, with the county controlling five of the appointments, the city’s cooperation was not necessary to make changes to the airport board.
Holder also noted the city has not financially supported the airport for a number of years.
Phillips said Friday’s changes are not the result of any one issue at the airport, which is currently in the process of a large runway expansion project funded mostly by state and federal grants. Instead, he believes a more hands-on approach from county commissioners is necessary to provide the level of accountability Surry County residents expect.
Phillips said a number of local companies rely on the airport, and once the plan was laid out to the airport board members, they bought in and resigned their volunteer posts.
“We appreciate their service, and we hope those guys will continue to be involved in advisory capacities,” remarked Phillips.
Holder said he already offered some advice. He told county officials that the airport must continue to contract with a fixed base operator to provide necessary services such as maintenance at the airport. Additionally, he urged commissioners to follow through with the runway expansion project.
One issue regarding the airport which has recently been before the county board involved the relocation of the Bannertown Volunteer Fire Department’s substation. In November the fire department drew the county board’s attention to an unpaid grading bill in the amount of $55,000.
As part of the runway expansion project, the fire department’s substation had to be relocated. The airport authority was required to provide a build-ready site for the department.
“They built a Taj Majal,” said Holder after noting the authority had also allowed the department to choose a new location and sell its old building and retain the proceeds.
Fire department officials claim the building is similar in size to its former substation.
After the department did settle on the second location, officials discovered some grading and fill dirt was necessary, and the department contracted with Sowers Construction to complete the work. Department officials believed, at the time, they would be reimbursed for the grading costs by the airport.
“We contracted with Sowers to haul dirt away from the airport,” explained Holder. “If they had consulted us, we could have just had them haul it there.”
Holder said any blame in mishandling the grading at the new site lies with the volunteer fire department.
Johnson said the county board has considered the move for months. The board sought the advice of an attorney who specializes in the area and board members visited a number of other airports before pulling the trigger on their plans.
“Steps are being taken to transition oversight and financial management of the Mount Airy-Surry County Airport Authority,” states a media release from Knopf. “To allow the county to oversee and handle the financial management of the Authority, three county-appointed Authority members have voluntarily resigned their seats and two have not been reappointed to their expired terms.
“With the ever changing complexity of local government finance, the county’s involvement in oversight will transfer these increasing demands from what has been a volunteer board since the 1960’s.”
Johnson said a smooth transition lies ahead at the airport.
“They are all willing to help with the transition,” noted Johnson. “Mr. Zamora will also remain acting treasurer until we get a handle on things.”
He went on to explain that under the former board, those officials could make decisions such as to apply for grants which affected Surry County’s finances. Now, with county commissioners at the helm, the airport authority will be able to make decisions with the entire financial picture for Surry County in mind.
Johnson said he has no choice but to do what is best for Surry County.
“Serving on the airport board isn’t something we wanted to do,” said Johnson. “It’s a necessity to do what we have to do there — what’s in the best interests of Surry County and its residents.”
Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.