JOHNSTOWN - How useful is a small municipal airport to the taxpayer who subsidizes it?
Local government and economic development leaders praise the Fulton County Airport, as do aviation enthusiasts, who have a vested interest in the small facility off Route 67.
Though the county airport has no regular scheduled flights and charges no landing fees to pilots who touch down there, they say the facility has had indirect benefits to all residents of the county for the 22 years it has been in operation.
A small plane carrying flight instructor Adam Towne of Johnstown and a student pilot, Anthonio Baker of Amsterdam, lands Thursday at the Fulton County Airport in Johnstown. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan)
County figures show the county's net cost to run the airport averages less than $10,000 per year.
The airport currently has 35 private planes tied down at its two privately owned hangars, and it receives incoming flights from other aircraft using the runway at various times during any 24-hour period.
Data about traffic at the airport is not available, officials say, because the Federal Aviation Adminstration doesn't require the county keep track of takeoffs and landings there.
"It's not required at a general aviation airport," county Planning Director James Mraz said.
But the FAA, which provides 95 percent funding for projects done at the airport, does have some information about traffic at the airport, according to a database created to accompany a 2009 report by the newspaper USA Today.
That data indicates about $5.9 million in federal funding has been provided to the Fulton County Airport over the years in the form of 16 individual grants. The FAA estimated the airport had about 9,700 annual takeoffs and landings around the time of that report. If that estimate has been consistent over the life of the airport, federal taxpayers' cost to support the operation has been about $30 per flight in and out of the airport.
Mraz said those figures likely were a "guess" made by someone associated with the airport and provided to the FAA.
The facility was opened in the late 1980s as a way to help attract business to Fulton County, he said.
"It was all being done when the county was trying to get an economic development program together," Mraz said. "It offered us the ability to compete."
He said many people have become commercial pilots after gaining instruction at the airport. He said government's primary goal is to not to make money, but to provide services.
"We provide all the management and administrative support for the facility," Mraz said.
The other nearest municipal airport is the Piseco Airport in Hamilton County, which the FAA estimates has 3,150 annual takeoffs and landings.
There also are seven smaller private and public airstrips in Fulton County in the towns of Perth and Broadalbin and the village of Dolgeville. There are private airfields in Amsterdam in Montgomery County and Edinburg in Saratoga County.
Some local watchdogs feel the Fulton County Airport serves no good purpose for the average taxpayer.
"It's just not a good thing for the people here," local cable TV access host John Kane, a frequent critic of local government, said of the airport.
Kane thinks there are "a whole bunch" of local business and economic development leaders locally who care about the airport - but virtually no one else.
The airport has been the area's main link to flight instruction and recreational aviation over the years. The facility used to serve as a site for such public events as aerial acrobatics, motorcycle shows, circuses and firework shows, but no such events have taken place in recent years.
None of those events was sponsored by the county. They were conducted by previous private managers of the airport, as well as businesses that put up their own money but had to get an insurance waiver from the county to use the facility.
The airport has a small terminal building on the property and another private business -Grandma Millie's Bakery - on the grounds.
Opened in the late 1980s, the Fulton County Airport has a single, roughly 4,000-square-foot runway. The airport is managed on a daily basis by a fixed-based operator. The current FBO is The 195 Factory, LLC, an aircraft replacement parts manufacturer. It manages the airport for the county on a daily basis.
Sandy McCullough, The 195 Factory's office and parts manager, said the FBO has its own hours for the public. Its website says 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and "other times by chance."
McCullough said The 195 Factory buys the fuel used for planes at the airport, while the county maintains the airport property and fuel pump. The FBO also rents hangar space, the profit from which is shared with the county.
She said the terminal building does have a log-in book for anyone who wants to sign in, but doing so is optional.
"It's a self-serve," McCullough said. "People come and go on the weekend."
She estimated use of the airport by corporate planes amounts to about 10 percent of the overall traffic or less.
David Lewis of Broadalbin, who owns a Cessna 172 based at the airport, said he is glad to be associated with the county airport.
"I've been there about five years," Lewis said. "[The 195 Factory] does a good job with the hangar and the maintenance and the fuel. I'm very happy up there."
Kane says it is "ridiculous" that county government would give up its longtime nursing home, which once employed more than 200 workers, and then "turn around and talk about a $4 million roadway for the planes."
Kane was referring to the five-year, non-binding Airport Capital Improvement Plan the county is required to file on an annual basis with the FAA. The latest plan the county submitted in May included a proposed $4 million 2016 project to extend the runway to the west. If that project is ever done, it would be in line for 95 percent federal funding.
"It's just for the rich boys to play with their toys," Kane said of the county airport.
In considering the usefulness of the airport, Fulton County Board of Supervisors Chairman Michael F. Gendron said "something that immediately comes to mind" is the use of the facility by the county's business leaders. Both Gendron and Mraz said CG Roxane's French owner, Pierre Papillaud, has flown in.
"He's been to Fulton County on several occasions," Gendron said.
Papillaud's company is now constructing a $25 million, 176,757-square-foot water bottling plant on Watershed Road in the town of Johnstown that is expected to employ 33 people and more than a dozen more when it eventually expands.
"An airport is one of those things that make a community whole, like a hospital, church and school," Gendron said.
Not only does an airport help make the community more "vibrant," he said, but it is a vital local link to the "national defense system."
"The airport could be used if something happens," the county chairman said.
Gendron said he "can't comment about how the average person thinks about the airport," but only as an elected supervisor representing the public. As a government official for several years, he said, he's never heard anyone call for elimination of funding for the airport.
Fulton County government has been involved in many efforts in recent years to privatize operations and to scale down government. Those include selling the county infirmary and transferring services from two mental health clinics to a private entity.
Mraz said even if there were a political desire to privatize the Fulton County Airport, the federal government might oppose doing that to a "public-available" small community airport.
"I don't think the FAA will allow it," Mraz said.
The Fulton County Planing Department provided The Leader-Herald with 11 years of financial figures related to the airport. The breakdown was the annual net cost to operate and maintain the airport from 2000-11.
Mraz noted figures show the county spends generally less than $10,000 per year to operate the airport, omitting a few one-time costs and chargebacks.
Expenditures include repairs, insurance, telephone, professional services, electricity and FBO building renovation and supplies. Revenues include rentals and fuel fees.
"We spend very little money on it," Perth Supervisor Greg Fagan, chairman of the Board of Supervisors' Finance Committee, said of the airport.
The county figures compare revenues with expenses and show the county's net out-of-pocket expense to operate the airport ranged from $438 in 2000 to $7,392 in 2011.
In between, there were years such as 2008-10, when the cost ranged from $24,470 to $43,606. Mraz said those years' data are skewed by one-time expenses. Those expenses included door replacement, alarm repair, flooring for the FBO building, restriping of the runway, taxiway and apron, and a slurry seal treatment.
"That's why you see these big jumps during those years," Mraz said.
Mraz said the airport has also had county highway "chargeback" expenses ranging from $13,268 in 2003 to $21,487 in 2010 and county maintenance "chargeback" expenses ranging from $2,053 in 2003 to $7,866 in 2009. That work can include grass mowing and snow plowing by the county Highways and Facilities Department.
Because the chargebacks equate to county employees doing work at a county facility, Mraz said "it's not like it's an added cost" to the airport.
Fagan said he has "no explanation" why community events are no longer conducted at the airport.
But he said the fact businesses use the facility to help invest in jobs for the county's 55,000 residents is beneficial to the community.
"Any economic development of any kind is going to be good for any resident in any way, shape or form," Fagan said.
Editor's note: This story has been revised from its original version to correct the estimated cost of federal taxpayer support per flight at the Fulton County Airport. Michael Anich covers Johnstown and Fulton County news. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.