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Jackson airport to get repairs, new level of attention

The Jackson County commissioners have breathed new life into the county’s airport authority by taking it over.

After appointing themselves to five of the six seats on the airport board last month, the commissioners met in their new capacity for the first time this week and began their work of running the airport. They voted to tap $150,000 in federal funds to fix the Jackson County Airport’s failed runway lighting system — a move that required a $16,500 matching grant on the part of the county, despite previous resistance by commissioners to plow tax money into the airport.

Taken together, the actions represent a new relationship between the county and the airport and may revitalize what had been a decaying piece of infrastructure. Jason Kimenker, the sole survivor from the last airport authority, saw the New Year’s first meeting in a positive light.

“I’d been waiting for a long time for the county commissioners to step up to the plate and take responsibility for the appointment of the authority’s members to make sure the airport was managed and maintained properly,” Kimenker said. “What happened today was a pleasant surprise.”

Still, the new arrangement is bound to pose its own challenges. In the first place, confusion over wording in the airport’s charter language led to questions about whether the authority should consist of a five- or six-person board. After determining that the most recent version of the charter stipulates a five-person board, Commissioner William Shelton offered to resign his seat.

That leaves the four other commissioners and Kimenker on a board that has the job of functioning as an independent entity, which means the commissioners must wear two hats.

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On Monday, the authority approved bids for the runway lights, went over a list of other needed repairs and standing issues, then adjourned. The commissioners then donned their county board hats and voted to authorize the matching grant of $16,750 from the county’s contingency fund to land the federal grant money.

County Chairman Brian McMahan, who was elected chairman of the airport authority on Monday night, stressed that the commissioners would spend much of the next three months learning the airport’s business and determining the best way for the authority to move its agenda forward.

Commissioner Tom Massie, who had been an outspoken critic of the county’s allocation of money to the airport, was clear about the reason he wanted to take over the authority, pointing out the series of issues that had ended up in the county board’s lap over the past few years.

“If we’re going to have to face those things anyway, we may as well be on the airport authority and make sure it works and it’s safe for the public,” Massie said.

But the airport authority had languished for the past two years as a result of outstanding debts, a lack of county support, and a dwindling board. Monday’s meeting showed that the period had yielded a new string of issues. The lighting system failure, an inoperable fuel tank, lack of a routine maintenance plan, even concerns over the cost of toilet paper, and unresolved legal disputes with nearby landowners about erosion from the airport.

Massie wasn’t happy with much of what he heard.

“I was disappointed because I thought some of these issues had been resolved, particularly with regard to the lawsuits,” Massie said.

A large contingent of pilots turned out for the meeting, including former authority member John Glenn, a flight instructor. Glenn is pleased with the commissioners’ willingness to take on a leadership role at the airport.

“The airport is part of the county infrastructure. You can’t be separate from and part of the county at the same time,” Glenn said. “We’ve been little by little trying to turn the airport back into the county fold. It’s a good move. They’ll have to walk a mile in our moccasins now.”

Kimenker has enjoyed a peculiar transition, having woken up one morning to find himself sitting alone amongst the county commissioners.

“It’s interesting,” Kimenker said. “Now we have all the county’s concerns in the same room and that’s a good thing.”

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