The fate of the Glenwood Springs Municipal Airport rests squarely on the voters’ shoulders.
Voters are being asked whether or not to raise Glenwood Springs’ property taxes by four mills for 20 years, generating approximately $1.2 million a year to pay for airport improvements and a tunnel under the runway, which could connect South Midland Avenue to the South Bridge Project.
A second ballot question asks voters if the city should take on $8 million in debt to fund the South Bridge tunnel, new airport hangars, a new Fixed Base of Operations (FBO) and bringing the airport’s fueling facilities up to code.
If approved by the voters, about $5.5 million raised through taxes and bonds could be used to fund the runway tunnel, and approximately $7 million could go to airport improvements, such as a new FBO, hangars, a fuel farm, perimeter fencing, taxiway lighting and seal coating for the runway every five years for the next 20.
If the voters approve the debt question without the mill levy, the city could have the authority to borrow for the purposes described in the question, but it would not have access to additional airport revenues to repay the debt, Glenwood Springs City Attorney Karl Hanlon said in an email. The outcome would reduce the amount that could be borrowed, Hanlon explained.
If the voters approve the mill levy but not the debt, the city could collect the revenue stream and use it for the projects outlined in the tax question, including repayment of debt; however, Glenwood Springs would not have the authority to issue debt as defined by the TABOR amendment, he said.
The ballot questions, however, don’t explain that voting no on both could be the end of the airport as most users know it.
Without funding for a tunnel under the runway, the city might cut the runway short to build traffic lanes to connect South Bridge with South Midland Avenue and 4 Mile Road — which council members have acknowledged publicly.
During a City Council meeting Sept. 2, Mayor Pro Tem Charlie Willman said, “If you want to keep the airport runway, then vote for this.”
For a majority of council members, the futures of South Bridge Project and the airport are intrinsically tied.
Airport users, on the other hand, want the funding questions kept separate from determining the facility’s future. Often using terms such as “our airport” and “the city’s bridge project,” many airport users feel overlooked in the process of deciding the city-operated facility’s fate.
So much so, they circulated a petition to amend the city’s charter, making it impossible for the city to make major decisions about the airport without consent from the voters. The petition was ultimately rejected by City Clerk Ryan Muse on the grounds it did not have enough valid signatures to meet the statutory requirement for holding a special election, according to city documents.
When Mayor Jonathan Godes pitched the idea of airport improvements funded by a proposed tax, which would need voter approval, he did so without consulting the city’s airport commission, on which he serves as council liaison.
Several airport commissioners said they learned about the proposal only after the council decided to move forward with adding the tax questions to the November ballot — 60 days before the election was scheduled.
“The first time I heard about the tax and bond questions was the day after it was presented to council,” said Dave Merritt, the Glenwood Springs Airport Commission chair. “I was blown away. It was not needed or wanted by anyone at the airport.”
Council Member Tony Hershey said leaving the airport commission out of the ballot question proposal process was a bad-faith measure by council, and he called the ballot measures a “poison pill” for the airport.
Business or pleasure?
Some people view the airport as a hobby hub for retirees with money and time to spare, but for some airport users, the runway is as integral to their business model as a computer or phone.
Pinedale Natural Gas owner Steve Shute, 65, started his natural gas-distribution business in Glenwood during the ’90s. After working for a large natural gas company, he discovered a niche market in rural communities commonly overlooked by large corporate distributors.
His first customers were in Wyoming, and he spent a considerable time driving for work. During one such trip to Pinedale, Wyoming, Shute’s car was totaled in a collision with a Black Angus bull that had entered the roadway.
Shute’s 34-year-old son, Joel, was a child at the time, but he remembers the incident as the turning point from flying being a passion for his father to a business necessity.
“If you had looked at the car, you wouldn’t have believed he survived the crash,” said Joel Shute, who now works and flies with his father.
Nowadays, the Shutes serve about 10,000 customers scattered throughout Kentucky, California, Wyoming and Colorado. While they have employees at some of their distribution sites, they are a small business and do much of the work themselves.
Joel Shute said they wouldn’t be able to continue doing business if they had to rely on commercial flights, which don’t connect to the small, rural communities they specialize in. And driving is not a feasible alternative, he explained.
“Most of the pilots out here use their planes for business in some way,” Joel Shute said. “We probably only have 3-4 people who do it solely as a hobby.”
Flying out of the Rifle Garfield County Airport is not an option for Glenwood users, either, Steve Shute said.
“There are about 60 planes here,” he said. “We have several hangars and more than 30 tie-downs (for storing planes outdoors). Rifle has zero hangars and about 22 tie-downs.”
A recent airport commission appointee, Joel Shute said the ballot initiatives — specifically the improvements they propose to fund — did not reflect the users’ needs or wants.
“This tax proposal is a ruse,” he said. “It’s only purpose is to kill the airport.”
Weaving in South Bridge
Merritt does not own a plane, nor is he a pilot, but he’s lived by the airport for decades and currently serves as the airport commission chair.
“Living out by the airport, I appreciate it,” Merritt said. “I wanted to serve on the commission, because I want it to be a good organization and amenity of the city.”
A self-described “govvy geek,” Merritt is an engineer, who is passionate about encouraging good governance through serving on boards and commissions. He served on the Glenwood Springs City Council from 2001-09 and dedicated 12 years to the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
For Merritt, improving the airport and funding the South Bridge Project are both important and beneficial to Glenwood Springs residents, but he said they should be approached separately.
“The tunnel is supposed to be a piece of the South Bridge Project, not the airport,” Merritt said. “As an enterprise fund, the airport is self-sufficient. It does need some of the items on the city’s list, but we have a number of options for funding those.”
During the council’s Sept. 2 meeting, airport commission members suggested letting private donors build hangars at the airport. Merritt also said Classic Air Medical has expressed an interest in building a new FBO at the airport and sharing space with city staff.
Gary Vick, a pilot and part-time Glenwood Springs resident, said the city is putting the cart before the horse by trying to fund a tunnel under the airport before securing the rest of the money needed to complete the South Bridge Project, which is estimated to cost about $57 million.
The city reserved $20 million in bonding capacity from the Acquisitions and Improvements Fund for South Bridge, Glenwood Springs spokesperson Bryana Starbuck said in an email. The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority committed $4 million in Destination 2040 funds for construction, but Glenwood Springs is requesting the funding be shifted to right of way acquisition. If the RFTA request is approved, Starbuck said approximately $37 million in commitments will still be needed for the South Bridge, Starbuck said.
If approved by voters, the mill levy could raise about $1.2 million annually for the airport, based on current property values, for 20 years, or about $24 million — nearly double the estimated $12.5 million needed for the proposed improvements, repairs and tunnel construction. Vick said the math doesn’t add up.
“As the properties increase in value, it will generate even more money,” he said. “It seems like an undefined way to get some extra tax money, but the question language doesn’t really define what they would use it for.”
The tax question states the increased mill levy would be used to fund the airport’s operational and capital costs, listing some projects. While the tax question language indicates it would be used for airport projects and the South Bridge tunnel, it also states the additional monies would not be limited to the projects listed in the ballot question. The bond question states the city could increase its debt to pay for one or more of the following: South Bridge tunnel, new airport hangars, a new FBO and a fuel farm.
“The city is going to say if the tax doesn’t pass, the people don’t support the airport, so they can do whatever they want,” Vick said. “I can’t speak to the motives of the council, but I can say what I think the result will be. The citizens are going to reject (the tax increase), and the city is going to use that as justification to close (the airport).”
‘Do you want to keep the airport?’
Although a majority of council members voted to put the tax and bond questions on the ballot, multiple members spoke against the move.
Council Member Ingrid Wussow said she did not support the ballot questions, because she didn’t think they were worded honestly.
“The way the questions are written, we’re asking people if they want to fund airport improvements, and in turn, the South Bridge,” Wussow said. “When really, we’re asking, ‘Do you want to keep the airport?’”
By not including the airport commission in the process of selecting improvement projects and putting together a funding plan, she said the council missed an opportunity to serve both the airport users and the community at large.
“I’m disappointed,” Wussow said. “We on council are not subject matter experts in every field. We have boards and commissions so that we can have passionate community members helping to inform our decisions.”
Godes said he voted for the tax and bond questions because airport maintenance and improvement have long been neglected.
“We have always treated this airport differently than any other city facility, because the users have a private club and have always hung their hat on the idea that the airport doesn’t cost the city money — until now,” he said. “The South Bridge tunnel and the airport are interrelated, because if we did not have to have a runway that can accomodate small, private aircraft, we would not need a tunnel that costs $5.5 million.”
Without a runway, Godes said the airport could still serve as a helipad and refueling station for firefighting efforts and Classic Air Medical, a privately owned medical transport company that serves hospitals around the Roaring Fork Valley.
“Unequivocally, this council, the citizens, the hospital and the firefighting community understand the absolute necessity to always have helicopter operations at the Glenwood airport,” he said.
Reporter Ike Fredregill can be reached at 970-384-9154 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.