Osage City Council to decide fate of federal funding for airport

Voters approved the airport expansion project 25 years ago

By Jan Biles, The Topeka Capital-Journal

Osage City Airport

A $4.1 million airport capital improvement program in Osage City that was approved 25 years ago by its residents and is mostly financed by Federal Aviation Administration funds may be in jeopardy.

Some members of the current Osage City Council seem to be questioning whether the city should continue with the program, going as far as to suggest the measure should go before residents for a revote. Yet, they have declined to talk publicly about their reasons for taking those stances.

The lack of transparency by the city council and the possibility of losing federal money to help pay for airport improvements and maintenance have created tension in the town of 2,900 people.

“There’s a lot of push and pull among people,” Osage City resident Mike Handly said.

The next meeting of the Osage City Council is at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the council chambers at 5th and Lord streets. Handly said a representative for the FAA is expected to be in attendance.

Airport improvement

In 1985, the FAA accepted Osage City into the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems as a Basic Utility Category General Aviation Airport, making it eligible for federal airport planning and development funds, according to the city’s website.

In April 1989, voters approved a referendum 478 to 446 to allow the city to acquire additional land for the expansion, development, and improvement of the airport facilities and to issue $125,000 in general obligation bonds to cover the city’s portion of the estimated $1.25 million cost of the project. The remaining 90 percent of the cost would be paid by federal funds.

Each year since 1989, the city council has approved an airport capital improvement program, or the city’s portion to continue the program.

In 2010, a $4.1 million, five-year airport capital improvement program was approved that included land acquisition, relocation of displaced property owners, grading, and expansion of the runway to 4,000 feet long and 75 feet wide. The city would be responsible for about $200,000, and the remaining $3.9 million would come from federal funds.

Osage City Council member Edwin Mueller said he is “definitely for” moving forward with the $4.1 million airport capital improvement plan.

“The people voted for it 25 years ago. We’re in the process of getting the land for it,” Mueller said.

“No one can predict the future, but I do know that Osage (City) has the lowest hangar rates (in this part of the country). If we do go through with it, we can have bigger airplanes land here and build more hangars.”

Council member Linda Carson declined to comment on the airport capital improvement plan or how she would vote. The Topeka Capital-Journal left messages for the other six council members – Edward Berends, Becky Brewer, Duane Peroo, Robert Rowe, Bruce Schoepflin and Leroy Stromgren – which weren’t returned.

Osage City Mayor Quintin Robert is allowed to vote on decisions only if the city council’s vote ends in a tie. In the past year, he has cast a tie-breaking vote on two measures involving land acquisition for the airport project.

If the city council splits its vote on the airport capital improvement program, Robert said he will vote to move forward.

“It gives us an economic tool not available to other towns our size,” he said.

Boosting the economy

Casey Mussatto, chairman of the Osage City Industrial Committee, said Osage City isn’t the only small town in Kansas upgrading their airports. Recently, 24 Kansas cities received Kansas Airport Improvement Program grants, administered by the Kansas Department of Transportation, totaling $5.28 million.

Osage City received two grants, totaling $343,800.

“The step we’re taking to expand the airport is not something no other town is doing,” he said. “It’s an example of a community being progressive and enhancing its ability to attract business and industry.”

The airport expansion, he said, would allow small jets and large single- and two-engine airplanes to land and take-off more safely, as well as attract industry and jobs.

Mussatto said two businesses currently rely on the airport facilities: Hawkeye Helicopters, a contract aerial survey firm, and Skydive Kansas, which offers skydiving activities. In addition, Asset LifeCycle LLC, a recycler of computer and office equipment, is part of the neighboring industrial park.

Jen Sharp, who has owned and operated Skydive Kansas for 18 years, said small cities throughout Kansas are trying to find a niche to bring people into their communities.

“There’s an endless way to use (the airport). It’s up to the imagination of entrepreneurs,” she said. “The city’s doing its part to accept federal grants for a project that has been in the works for years and years.”

Sharp said a veto of the airport capital improvement plan would be a setback.

“A lot of people are on the cusp of excitement for the city, and this would be a blow to morale, and the city would have the burden of its maintenance if there is no federal funds,” she said.

Mussatto and Handly said the choice facing the city council is simple: Stop the airport improvement plan, pay back prior monies received for the project, and give up maintenance money provided by the federal government, or continue the plan and pay 10 percent of the cost, which improves the airport and secures future maintenance money.

In other words, Handly said, “It’s use it or lose it.”

“At first flush, it looks like it’s more airport than the city needs, but it’s comparable to the Burlington and Wellington airports,” he said.

Mussatto said it’s a “mystery” why city council members would oppose receiving federal or state monies to improve facilities, utilities or other assets.

“They need to have a firm reason why they oppose it and debate it,” he said. “I see no debate going on.”

Jan Biles can be reached at 785-295-1292 or [email protected]. Read Jan’s blog.

Reprinted from The Topeka Capital Journal with permission. Original story on cjonline.com is here (subscription fees may apply). Photo by Rick Potter.

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