Those who thought the squabbles between the Fargo City Commission and Municipal Airport Authority were behind us were sadly mistaken. The feud has been rekindled.
This time the source of friction is the airport’s construction mill levy. By a vote of 3 to 2, the Fargo City Commission reduced the allocation by two mill levies, or about $1.2 million.
Airport authority board members and city commissioners were recently at odds over the airport’s autonomy. The authority was chafing over the classification of its employees at Hector International Airport as city employees.
After a protracted back-and-forth, with help from a mediator, the matter was resolved with an agreement that, although airport employees would continue to be considered city employees for purposes of payroll, pension, health insurance and other benefits, they would fall under a command and reporting structure that recognized them as employees of the airport authority.
The new arrangement seems to be working well. But the airport authority and Shawn Dobberstein, the airport’s executive director, seem to have forgotten that their newfound “autonomy” goes only so far.
Mayor Tim Mahoney and a majority of the City Commission seem intent on reminding the airport authority that the taxing authority for airport construction rests with the commission.
A majority of commissioners, noting that the airport authority has a financial reserve healthier than the city’s, holds the view that the airport can self-fund its near-term improvement projects.
The airport authority is planning an expansion of the terminal by adding two or three boarding gates to enable the airport’s capacity to increase, giving passengers more flight options. It also has to replace a large concrete runway apron.
And, in two or three years, airport officials plan to build a covered walkway to shelter airport customers who park in the sprawling lot as they trod to the terminal. (We’ll say it again: The airport authority should instead build a parking ramp.)
Commissioner Tony Gehrig, ever the maverick, suggested with no takers that the city’s arts and culture budget could be slashed and the pay increase for city employees could be trimmed.
But the issue wasn’t really about the $1.2 million for the next budget year. Denying the two mills was a way for commissioners to send a pointed message to the airport authority.
It was a reminder that the airport authority controls its 16 airport employees and 10 aircraft rescue and firefighter staff members — but the City Commission alone has authority over the airport’s mill levy.
That’s as it should be. The Municipal Airport Authority’s board members are appointed by the commission, not elected.
Those who have the power to levy taxes should be accountable and answerable to voters, not to appointed board members whose vision tends to be myopic and who are not attuned to voters’ wishes.
This latest spat doesn’t need a mediator to fix. It’s a matter of repairing communications, and the onus is on Dobberstein and the Municipal Airport Authority board to keep city commissioners well informed of their capital improvement needs and plans.
The airport authority has just been given a bruising reminder that it’s subordinate to the City Commission. Its autonomy is limited. It should act accordingly.