Airport fight heads to high court

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 13, 2001

[11/13/01]After three and a half years of controversy surrounding the regional airport in Mound, the Mississippi Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Wednesday over funding for one airport and the fate of another.

Justices will hear arguments from attorneys for the City of Vicksburg and attorneys for 18 area businessmen who sued the city after the city board voted in 1998 to close the city’s airport on U.S. 61 South.

The two questions facing the high court are:

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Did the city act legally when it established an airport authority to fund the 18-year-old Vicksburg Tallulah Regional Airport? and;

Can the city board vote to close the 54-year-old Vicksburg Municipal Airport on U.S. 61 South?

This latest step in the litigation follows multiple appeals and cross appeals in six lawsuits filed by attorneys for both sides since March 1998. It could be months before a decision is handed down.

Warren County Circuit Judge Frank Vollor ruled that an airport authority was needed for a Mississippi entity to fund an airport in another state and that the city’s municipal airport remain open until an “adequate” replacement is provided.

Attorneys for businessmen who support keeping the municipal airport on U.S. 61 South open have argued the airport authority was not formed properly. Circuit Judge Isadore Patrick threw out that appeal, which has led to this week’s action before the Supreme Court.

Attorneys for the city have appealed Vollor’s ruling that has kept the airport open, arguing the city has the right to close the facility.

The two pleadings were combined by the Supreme Court in May, and both will be heard at the same time.

In other pending litigation surrounding VTR, a stay was entered in a separate suit filed by the city airport authority seeking an end to lawsuits over the airport. Vollor placed the motion for summary judgment on hold until after the Supreme Court rules in the other cases.

The lawsuits over VTR began in 1998 after former Mayor Robert Walker and former South Ward Alderman Sam Habeeb voted to close Vicksburg Municipal Airport in favor of the regional airport in Mound. North Ward Alderman Gertrude Young voted to keep the city’s airport open.

After the lawsuit was filed a month later by businessmen seeking to keep the airport open, Vicksburg stopped funding the Mound airport until forming the authority last year. If the Supreme Court justices agree with the plaintiffs, funding for the regional airport could again be an issue.

Warren County also ceased funding to the airport to avoid being caught up in the suits, but resumed funding after forming a separate authority last year.

Warren County has never been part of the litigation.

The regional airport is financially supported by the four government owners; Vicksburg, Warren County, Tallulah and Madison Parish. Together they pay operating expenses not covered by revenue.

The airport has had financial problems since litigation began, including nearly running out of fuel and problems making payroll. Warren County did not send funding to the airport for a year and a half and funding from Madison Parish has been late on some occasions.

During the arguments before the court in Jackson Wednesday, the City of Vicksburg will be represented by John Maxey of Jackson and the 18 businesses and businessmen will be represented by Ken Harper of Vicksburg.