SHERIDAN — Change is in the air. Or the airport, as it were.
A draft bill the Wyoming Legislature will consider in early 2021 would authorize counties to create airport districts, which could provide an additional source of funding for local airports, allowing them to levy up to three mills of local property tax dollars each year.
Devon Brubaker, airport director of the Southwest Wyoming Regional Airport in Rock Springs, has been an advocate of the legislation for years. On Dec. 1, he told members of the Legislature’s transportation committee Senate File 004 was critical as local and state governments faced tighter budgets in the coming years.
“We recognize the demand that our (airport) operations place on local entities causing government entities across the state to split limited resources between (the) economic activity and connectivity (provided by air service) and other important services to the residents,” Brubaker said. “In an effort to deliver a solution that will help local governments, we have looked across the country for successful airport governance models. The most successful models we’ve found are airport districts.”
The bill, if passed, would give counties the authority to create airport districts. According to Sheridan County administrative director Renee Obermueller, the creation of a local district would have to be approved by voters. If approved, the maximum the newly-created district could levy would be 3 mills, which is currently worth around $1.4 million, according to Obermueller.
The airport, which is currently managed as an enterprise fund by the county, would be managed by a voter-approved governing board of between three and nine board members if the airport district were approved. The governing board would have the power to enact any ordinances related to the operation of the airport district and could appoint airport personnel as necessary.
According to John Stopka, Sheridan County Airport manager, the draft bill is similar to one considered during the 2020 legislative session. While the bill died during that session, Stopka thinks it could have more momentum this year.
“It was brought up last year, but didn’t make it too far,” Stopka said. “But as the state is looking for ways to make their money go further, this is one way for them to do that.”
Steve Maier, chairman of the Critical Air Service Team board, said an airport district could fulfill a vital function in the coming years.
“The proposed Senate File 004 would be a way to provide airport funding to offset current funding that may well disappear as state mineral revenue continues to decline,” Maier said. “Currently, the state provides capital support to the various airports, along with some marketing funds. It is my view that this funding will go away in the future. The county provides some airport operational funding, and John is able to generate operating revenue from hangar leases and other services…The loss of state capital funds would be a significant blow to the airport operation, I believe. Thus, the potential of creating a taxing district in support of the airport.”
Obermueller, who also serves on the CAST board, added her commendations for the airport manager’s efforts to bring in revenue via grants, allowing the local airport to operate successfully.
“But if our air service starts growing, or the other sources of revenue that the airport currently receives through federal and state grants dry up, an alternate funding source could be helpful,” Obermueller said.
Stopka said he was on the fence about creating a local airport district and noted the discussion came with “all sorts of pros and cons, ifs and what-ifs.”
“I’m just kind of neutral on it right now,” Stopka said. “I want to take some time to feel out what the commissioners think about it.”
Obviously, an additional source of funding would be a benefit, Stopka said. But he’s also leery about changing up the leadership structure for the airport.
“Right now, I work for the county commissioners,” Stopka said. “I don’t work for a board. I’m just another department head in the county. I know a lot of other airport managers across the state wish they had the same setup. I thoroughly enjoy working for the commissioners. As far as the board, there are good boards and bad boards, and you don’t always know what you’re going to get as far as support for the airport. With the commission, I know what I’m going to get, and I feel very thankful for that.”
Maier agreed a new board would add a level of complexity to airport operations.
“The district would be a combination of towns, city and county,” Maier said. “The more entities involved, the more complex the district governing board. The devil is always in the details.”
If an airport district moves forward in Sheridan County, it would not have an impact on the operations of the Critical Air Service Team, which serves as a community advocate for local air service, according to Obermueller.
“Having a community advocate for air service is important,” Obermueller said. “So if a district moves forward, CAST would remain a standalone nonprofit. The creation of a district would not prevent them from advocating for local air service.”
While a lot has to happen before the county can even consider forming an airport district, Stopka, Obermueller and Maier said they would be watching the bill closely during the legislative session.
“When we see draft legislation come along, we wait to know it is going to be put into law before we take any action,” Obermueller said. “We’re going to watch and wait, but we won’t get too excited until it passes.”
Stopka echoed those sentiments.
“I’ll be very interested to follow this and see how things go this session,” Stopka said. “While I’m in a holding pattern right now, my opinions could change and probably will change as things move forward. I need to throw the personal stuff out and look at what is the best source of sustainable funding for the airport in the future. It’s possible that the airport district might be that source.”