Hector International Airport, city finalize new agreement
For first time in more than 50 years, staff will no longer be city employees
FARGO — The city and Hector International Airport have finalized negotiations that will create more separation between the two operations starting this year.
Mayor Tim Mahoney and Airport Authority Chairman Erik Lind signed the "memorandum of understanding" on Monday in City Hall that ended two years of talks that City Commissioner John Strand has described as "not easy for either side."
The biggest change is that the 32 full- and part-time airport employees, including 10 firefighters, will no longer be city employees as they have for the past 53 years since the airport authority was formed in 1969.
Thus, the airport will have its own payroll, benefits and informational technology and human resources departments.
However, City Attorney Erik Johnson, in his final City Commission meeting last week, explained that it's not a "complete separation" and that the airport will still remain "an arm of the city."
Because state law doesn't allow taxing authority by the airport itself, the airport will still have to request to the City Commission the two-mill levy they have been receiving for decades to help with any improvement projects at the airport grounds.
On an annual basis, they will also have to provide the City Commission reports on its budget, audit, planned projects, employee costs and safety policies, Johnson said.
The City Commission will also still appoint the five members to serve on the Airport Authority board whose meetings will continue to be open to the public and broadcast on the city's website.
"I believe this relationship will work," said Strand when the commission approved the agreement last week on a 4-1 vote.
Commissioner Dave Piepkorn cast the only vote in opposition. He didn't explain why.
Strand said the move allows the airport to "stand on its own" and "depoliticize its activities."
"It wasn't easy to relinquish the city's tight control," Strand said.
He credited Mahoney with leading the effort to have more separation.
"I think we'll continue to have one heck of a good airport that will reflect well on the state and our community," Strand said. "I think the best decision is to set them free and allow them to flourish."
Airport Manager Shawn Dobberstein said in an interview with The Forum that they indeed have many major projects ahead including expanding the terminal, replacing the aging concrete aprons surrounding the terminal and improving the parking payment center and addressing other parking issues in the next few years.
By adding to its five gates, Dobberstein said it's the hope they can offer more airlines and departure and arrival times.
The airport manager also explained that the Federal Aviation Administration pays for a good share of projects at the airport, but there has to be a local contribution, too.
The airport has been praised for its effort to bank funds to pay its local share over the years for projects rather than to have to borrow money.
The overall operation has also grown extensively in recent years with major projects completed or planned for private companies and the military operating on the site.