Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
The Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport has been mired in controversy during its recent history. Some problems have led to litigation (McGill lawsuit), potential litigation (Florida Public Utilities discovery of an old landfill on former Airport land purchased to build a new facility), and two Chapter 13 complaints filed with the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). Brian Echard as the principal of 8 Flags Aviation filed the first complaint, alleging that the city had improperly denied them a second fixed base operation (FBO) at their preferred location. After many years of costly mediation and litigation, the city lost the McGill lawsuit as well as its appeal of the final judgment. The City and FPU came to an understanding to mitigate the contaminated land at the Airport with costs borne by both parties, thereby avoiding litigation. The FAA ruled in the City’s favor on the first Chapter 13 complaint, claiming that 8 Flags Aviation had not provided complete information, while leaving the door open to a re-filing of the complaint. And now there is a second complaint.
The city of Fernandina Beach recently responded to the latest complaint filed with the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). This time in the Part 13 Complaint dated July 23, 2013 and expanded upon August 19, 2013, the complainant – Mickey Baity, former chair of the city’s Airport Advisory Commission (AAC) – alleged that the city has violated FAA Grant Assurance 25 (Airport Revenues) and probably Grant Assurance 5 (Preserving Grants and Powers). Baity has claimed that the violations involve primarily the city’s failure to pay for use of non-aeronautical airport land and use of non-aeronautical airport land without FAA approval.
On October 9, 2013, City Manager Joe Gerrity, who also acts as airport manager, responded to the Baity complaint as requested in a letter from the FAA dated September 9, 2013. In addition to either refuting or explaining the background behind specific Baity allegations, Gerrity informed the FAA “While the FAA may have some suggestions for the City regarding the Airport, I can assure you that there is no revenue from the Airport going anywhere but back in the Airport Fund. The mood around the Airport from both users and citizens is much more positive [under his, Gerrity’s management], and I look forward to making best use of the investments from the FAA and FDOT [Florida Department of Transportation] to bring additional revenue from the Airport assets.”
Baity has alleged that the city has made non-aeronautical use of almost 30 acres of airport land since at least the mid-1980s for athletic fields. He also cites the city’s use of part of the land for a mulch site and another part for the Humane Society/Animal Control. In his August 19, 2013 response to the FAA’s request for additional information, Baity presented as an example “of the City’s long history of misuse of airport property and a less than complete understanding of their role as airport sponsor,” the recent sale of a parcel of airport property to Florida Public Utilities (FPU). Baity wrote, “After the sale was completed, FPU discovered that an old City waste dumpsite on the purchased property would require more remediation than originally indicated. … Further, there appears to be no record of a lease for the City to use airport land for this purpose [waste site] or if compensation was paid.”
Baity cited other instances of possible violations of Grant Assurances 25 and 5 through the years. He expressed skepticism over the city’s commitment to use airport funds to pay the Nassau County Economic Development Board (NCEDB) for the purpose of marketing and promoting the airport. He cited 5 grounds for his skepticism, including the city’s delay both in acting on an unsolicited proposal to open a second fixed base operation (FBO) and resolving significant safety issues that involved tree removal. Baity informed the FAA that as Airport Advisory Committee Chair, “ I did all I could do to prevent this use of airport funds [paying marketing and promotional fees to the NCEDB] or at least minimize the negative financial impact on the airport.”
Baity cited information provided by former Fernandina Beach City Manager Michael Czymbor and former municipal airport manager Richard Johnson regarding their development of an agreement for use of the land in question via cash transfers of $100K over each of the past two fiscal years from the city’s General Fund to the Airport Fund by use of a formula that took into account that part of the land was being used for community service and was therefore priced significantly lower than “fair market value” for non-aeronautical use of airport land.
Baity expressed his frustrations to the FAA in not being able to prompt action from the current or former city commissions and the current acting airport manager (City Manager Joe Gerrity) to address city policy and actions that might imperil FAA grant funding. He suggested that city decision makers might not be “fully aware of FAA guidelines/requirements regarding airport revenues and use of airport property or intentionally disregarding them.”
In concluding his August 19, 2013 letter to the FAA, Baity said: “I want to reiterate that I take this step reluctantly and out of frustration after concluding that City officials were unwilling, either intentionally or otherwise, to address the matter seriously. Either way, it may be time for the City of Fernandina Beach to relinquish sponsorship of FHB [the municipal airport] and instead move toward an independent governing authority that can focus its full attention on the proper management of this important asset. My desire is that our airport be managed professionally, particularly with adequate financial oversight that ensures appropriate compensation for use of its lands and facilities.”
City Manager/Airport Manager Joe Gerrity devoted almost two pages of his 5-page response to the FAA dated October 9, 2013 to providing the FAA with background to Baity’s complaint. He wrote, “The purpose of the above narrative is to fill in the blanks omitted by Mr. Baity and to give you an idea of how the Airport was run while Mr. Johnson served as Airport Manager and Mr. Baity served as Chair of the Airport Advisory Commission. I also want you to know what the management condition of the Airport was on May 29, 2013 [when Gerrity assumed the role of city manager/airport manager].”
Gerrity went on to explain to the FAA that the annual General Fund payment to the Airport Fund, as calculated by Johnson was flawed because it did not take into account the Airport’s need to pay for city police and fire protection, administrative salaries for Gerrity and his assistant and support from the City Attorney.
Gerrity agreed with Baity that there are problems with the fee structure at the Airport. He attributed part of the fee problem to the long-running lawsuit with the existing FBO, McGill Aviation. But the other part, in his judgment, was the “absurd” fee schedule, adding that few fees were ever collected. He also stated his belief that the Airport had been managed in a “Draconian-like manner” under Johnson.
He acknowledged that the Airport has experienced “negligible growth in the past six years” but went on to report that he has “changed the business model of trying to dun more dollars out of existing tenants and users to one of trying to grow the Airport by attracting new aviation related services/businesses by taking advantage of the money invested by the FAA, FDOT and the City over the last ten years.”
He addressed other complaints raised by Baity and concluded his letter, “I find Mr. Baity’s complaint disingenuous at best, and undermining at worst. If his concern was truly for the well-being of the Airport, he would not have resigned his position as the Chairman of the Airport Advisory Commission and stayed on to argue his views and positions. It was his choice to resign; I asked him to reconsider, but he was adamant about his decision.”
Now that both parties have presented their cases, it will be up to the FAA to determine whether or not there is merit to the complaint.
The Airport has been the object of significant controversy in the community over the past decade. The Airport Advisory Commission, which according to city policy, is an advisor to the City Commission on all matters related to the Airport, has voiced concerns that it has been bypassed when the city has made important decisions. While some in the community have criticized the operation as run by former Airport Manager Richard Johnson, others claim that he was the first such manager to attempt to reign in abuses and place the Airport on a professional path. Many in the local aviation community are equally unhappy that City Manager Joe Gerrity acts as Airport Manager on a part-time basis, when they believe that improvement of today’s facility and operations requires a full time, hands-on manager. Some have also expressed concerns that Passero and Associates, the city’s airport consultant, has become too powerful in decision-making.
Failure to regularly maintain Airport property led to a recent uproar from neighbors regarding a massive tree cutting and clearing project required by the FAA to maintain safe runway approaches. This project was delayed so long that some feared the city’s permission to operate the Airport had been jeopardized.
One idea that has surfaced as a means to solve the airport-related problems for the city is to create an independent airport authority. Such an action would get the city out of the airport business and place responsibility in the hands of a body that does not report to the city. While this move would eliminate many headaches for the Commission and Manager, some neighboring residents fear that their concerns would be more easily dismissed by an independent governing board.
Whether the sometimes competing interests and priorities of government, business and neighbors can be reconciled to create and maintain a vibrant, safe, general aviation facility that adds to the economic well being of the city remains to be seen. The continued assistance from the FAA and FDOT in the form of grants is vital to the Airport’s continuing operation.
At this point it is unknown whether the current government shut down will significantly delay the FAA’s response. For copies of the complaint and the City’s response along with extensive attachments, contact the City Clerk’s Office at (904) 310-3115 or [email protected].
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.
October 14, 2013 11:45 a.m.