By Paul Gable
(Ed. Note – This is the first in what will be a series of articles on the Horry County Department of Airports)
One of the more interesting discussions at the recent Horry County Council budget retreat dealt with the county’s Department of Airports.
Concerns were expressed about the county’s three general aviation airports, Grand Strand, Conway and Loris, all losing money.
The Department of Airports showed a net operating loss of approximately $150,000 last year. The three general aviation airports accounted for a total loss of approximately $400,000 while Myrtle Beach International Airport showed a profit of approximately $250,000.
Horry County Council chairman Mark Lazarus said a decision might have to be made at some point whether the county wants to keep all four of its current airports in operation.
What was not really discussed is that the Department of Airports has no real business plan and apparently no idea how to develop one.
In 2006, the Department of Airports paid for a study by Louis Berger Associates on improvements that could be made to increase revenue. One of the recommendations made was to privatize fixed base operators for general aviation.
Instead the Department of Airports ignored its own commissioned report. In 2012, it bought out the remaining years of the Ramp 66 lease at Grand Strand Airport to run that FBO on its own. It has never had a real FBO at Myrtle Beach International.
The Department of Airports likes to remind everyone that no local tax dollars are used to fund its operations. By that it means that no local property taxes are used.
It likes to say revenue for airport operations comes from leases and fees charged to airline passengers. Other sources include landing fees, aviation fuel sales and, most importantly, FAA grants.
FAA grants are annual, ongoing pork barrel spending that should draw intense scrutiny from Tea Partiers and other so-called conservative activists. But, they fly under the radar because it takes time and effort to dig into the particulars.
FAA airport improvement grants are funded approximately 65% from federal taxes on aviation fuel and 35% from general appropriations from Congress. General appropriations are funded by federal income tax revenue or, in this day and age, borrowing by the federal government.
An FAA grant of $12 million was used to purchase land for the West Side Terminal project at Myrtle Beach International Airport. The project failed so, in order not to have to pay the money back to the FAA, the land became the location of the International Aerospace and Technology Park (ITAP) at Myrtle Beach International.
In 2013, another FAA grant of $3.7 million was used to provide an apron and taxiway to service ITAP, even though there are no businesses located there and none on the horizon.
Therefore, $15.7 million federal tax dollars are tied up in empty grass and taxiways to nowhere at Myrtle Beach International. But, no local tax dollars are used at the airport. Really?
In future articles we will investigate more confused and contradictory pronouncements, projects and associated wasteful spending by the Department of Airports.