County delays signing off on VTR contract

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 5, 2009

Warren County will hold up on signing an operating agreement with co-owners of Vicksburg Tallulah Regional Airport in light of Tuesday’s election results in Vicksburg.

Disagreements have nearly been constant since the Mound facility was conceived in 1983 and completed 10 years later via a pact among both local governments, Tallulah and Madison Parish, to accept $6 million to build the airport and share in operational subsidies of about $20,000 per year.

The initial 25-year deal expired in December. A draft renewal of the deal shortened the contract to five years and directed the airport’s advisory board to notify both mayors and county/parish board presidents if prices for fuel sold at the airport exceeded regional averages by more than 15 cents.

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Vicksburg Mayor Laurence Leyens had advocated a total city pullout of the deal in 2007 as the city’s emphasis and grant dollars were shifted to Vicksburg Municipal Airport. With former county board attorney Paul Winfield now set to take over the mayor’s office on July 6, supervisors sense a more agreeable voice on how they believe the contract should read.

“Paul is familiar with it,” District 1 Supervisor David McDonald said.

During the campaign, Winfield did not take specific positions on the future of VTR’s four-way partnership. He said Vicksburg Municipal could develop into an economic development tool if plans remain on track, but didn’t elaborate.

Supervisors and their representative on the VTR board, Dan Fordice, want to restore a 25-year life on the deal and set in stone annual meetings sometime in late July to examine the budget. They also deemed notification of fuel price fluctuations unnecessary.

“I still think five years is a bad deal,” Fordice said. “We need to be committed to the thing.”

Approval of the airport’s annual budget is likely to remain subject to majority votes on the boards of each owner. Winfield’s nearly four-year tenure as supervisors’ legal counsel included a meeting in 2007 at Vicksburg City Hall between all owners and discussions leading up to a verbal agreement on a shorter contract. However, the strongest push for that and fuel price updates came from the Leyens administration. Approval of the Louisiana partners reportedly came in early May.

“The one who wanted them the most won’t be here,” District 4 Bill Lauderdale said during talks Thursday between supervisors and Fordice about the contract.

Since opening, VTR has also undergone millions of dollars worth of upgrades, with partners’ dollars matching federal grants.

Randy Woods, VTR general manager said runway light work could be completed as early as next week, which is ongoing with construction of a parallel taxiway. The work has caused some closure of the facility, eight air miles from Vicksburg Muncipal, which it was supposed to replace.

Usually, planes may come and go around the clock seven days a week, with terminal staffing hours 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

A $4 million FAA grant is financing the taxiway project. Along with an instrument landing system to aid nighttime landings, the federally financed renovations include a 5 percent match by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development and are the most significant at VTR in years. The federal aviation agency is paying a $250,000 tab for the lighting repair, airport officials have said.

Since the sporadic closures began, the jet owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Mississippi Valley Division has landed at John Bell Williams Airport in Raymond because Vicksburg Municipal doesn’t meet landing criteria for the jet.

On the table for the incoming Winfield administration relating to the municipal airport includes a 20-year plan and proposed clearance of about 19 acres of brush to extend the runway and install FAA-compliant fencing.

The city faces a September deadline to begin work on a new fire station at the U.S. 61 South facility to receive $1.3 million in Katrina-related disaster grant funds to finance the project. It remains unclear if efforts to land a $60 million defense testing facility will continue past Winfield’s inauguration July 6. Leyens had worked with U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. and a private company to bring the project, to be based jointly at the airport and at Engineer Research and Development Center, to Vicksburg.


Contact Danny Barrett Jr. at