VTR decision-making at issue in disputes

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 27, 2008

Autonomy of Vicksburg Tallulah Regional Airport directors to make decisions such as fuel purchases has emerged as the prime issue in resolving contractual issues among its four local government owners.

Members of each of its partner entities met for an unannounced round of talks at airport offices Monday, officials of both Mississippi sponsors said Wednesday. The current 25-year pact between Vicksburg, Warren County, Tallulah and Madison Parish expires Dec. 12.

Since Vicksburg officials voted in September to end its obligation to fund VTR and openly seek ways to shorten the agreement to at most 10 years, communication on VTR has centered on how best to proceed if the city pulls out.

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“We will try to revise the ownership agreement and set some direction,” Tallulah Mayor Eddie Beckwith said, adding he has been named a “temporary chairman” of sorts in irregular discussions spurred since September.

Beckwith said another meeting of the owners is set for Dec. 8 at 2 p.m. at the airport.

The airport, 8 miles west of Vicksburg at Mound, was conceived in 1983 as an inexpensive way for the four local governments to get an all-new airport. At the time, the Federal Aviation Administration was favoring airport partnerships and fronted 90 percent of the $6 million initial cost, making each partner’s share $150,000.

The economic impact of VTR and Vicksburg Municipal Airport on U.S. 61 South has been cast in terms of the types and volumes of air traffic at either facility. While both serve private planes often ferrying industrial executives to the area, fuel price differences continue as a concern despite falling prices. Falling profit margins from fuel sales because of high summer prices deepened VTR’s budget deficit for 2008-09 to $136,000, officials have said.

Jet fuel prices have fallen more than $1 a gallon since May, selling for $4.20 at VTR this week. Low-lead fuel, used by planes powered by smaller, piston-fired engines, is down 65 cents in the same period, at $4.05. At the height of midsummer spikes, the prices were identical at VKS. This week, however, jet and low-lead fuel prices per gallon were listed at $5.10 and $5.30, respectively.

Prices at John Bell Williams Airport in Raymond, owned by Hinds Community College and a major competitor for fuel sales for both local airports, have settled into comparable ranges after beating prices locally during the summer. An independent fuel supplier was listed as the Hinds County airport’s source during the summer spikes, usually translating into lower prices, just like gasoline for cars because of daily purchases. This week, a branded supplier is listed.

Speaking to four of five Warren County supervisors meeting Wednesday, VTR board member Dan Fordice said VTR has more fuel storage capacity than Vicksburg’s city-owned airport.

“They don’t get fuel at the same price as we do because they can’t take a full transport,” Fordice said. “We try to be as profitable as we can based on the economy and competition.”

Reached Wednesday, Vicksburg Mayor Laurence Leyens said the VTR board should have greater oversight over how and when gas prices are set. Currently, the price is set by the general manager with little approval needed by the board, Fordice told county supervisors.

Also topping the list of the city’s demands, Leyens said, is a balanced budget regardless of market conditions. In October, Leyens had announced displeasure when a scheduled meeting was canceled after the advisory board directed its legal counsel to rewrite the current agreement.

Federal Aviation Administration officials have stipulated long-term agreements to keep owners of airports eligible for federal grants. More than $4 million in improvements funded by such a grant and involves building a parallel taxiway and instrument landing system.

Grants stemming from hurricane recovery block grants issued to states affected by Katrina are financing a new fire station and improved terminal at VKS. Another $262,000 awarded by the Delta Regional Authority will pay for cutting trees and brush to expand the landing and takeoff space just north of the 5,000-foot runway.

Attendees at Monday’s session included Leyens, city attorney Nancy Thomas, County Administrator John Smith and all five county supervisors — though only District 1 Supervisor David McDonald and District 4 Supervisor Bill Lauderdale participated in the talks.

Supervisors have maintained a nearly neutral stance throughout, but have met more regularly with their appointee, Fordice, in public over budgets and fuel sales than the city has with its appointee, Benny Terrell. Monday’s talks were the first discussions among the owners since April 2007.

Economic development, also mentioned as a topic of discussion Monday and cited by Leyens as a key reason for VTR’s existence, was more possible at the Mound facility because of busier runways, supervisors said.

“(VTR) seems to have a much more viable future as a regional airport. Even an idiot can see that,” Board President Richard George said.

Since VTR opened in 1993, each partner has paid about $30,000 in annual subsidies to fund non-capital, basic operations at VTR. Its board is made up of members appointed by each of the four owners, plus one position that rotates between Warren County and Madison Parish.

Legal battles in the late 1990s between industrialists who favor Vicksburg Municipal staved off its closing, which loomed again with a 2002 Mississippi Supreme Court ruling allowing the city to do so. The city decided to keep it open, establishing an advisory board in 2005 which oversaw its budget until the city board dissolved it in September and absorbed the airport as a city department.


Contact Danny Barrett Jr. at dbarrett@vicksburgpost.com