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Several object to new airport rates

COVINGTON -- Aviators who use Covington Municipal Airport are raising objections to new ground lease rates and terms of lease that are being implemented by fixed base operator Dixie Jet Services Inc.

Several lease holders attended the Covington City Council meeting Dec. 7 to air their grievances.

But ultimately, city officials said the only matter in which they have a say is the new rates, which they tabled pending more information.

Dixie Jet is proposing the adoption of a flat rate of 5 cents per square foot on ground leases. Currently, tenants pay 4 to 8 cents per square foot. So, for some, the flat rate would mean a decrease, but those who pay 4 cents currently are opposed to what would amount to a 25 percent increase.

Lance Flynn said there is no reason for rates to go up because Dixie Jet is not providing any services to lessees, who own their own hangars and are responsible for maintaining them. Flynn is chairman of the Airport Advisory Committee but said he was not speaking on behalf of the committee when he addressed the council.

City Manager Steve Horton said the city's facilities manager conducted a survey of airports in Monroe, Madison and Paulding counties and their rates ranged from 5 cents to 25 cents per square foot. He added that the proposal by Dixie Jet does not appear to be unreasonable based on that data.

Jeff Dodson, who co-owns a hangar at the airport, said the other airports may be higher because they own their own hangars or provide services such as maintenance of grounds.

After double-checking, Horton said the Monroe and Paulding airports, which charge 20 and 25 cents per square foot, do own the hangars, while Madison, which charges 5 cents per square foot, does not.

Councilman Keith Dalton asked for more information on any services the airport in Madison may provide to lessees. The council tabled the rate adoption until that information is available.

Dixie Jet President Bob Riddell said that the rate change is an effort to make rent more balanced for all tenants.

"When we took over the leases there were all kinds of rates out there. There was no way of determining what people were being charged," he said. "We want to make sure everyone is being charged the same rate."

Riddell said lessees who prepay for six months, a year or the term of the lease will have rent reduced between 10 and 40 percent, an offer that was not previously available. He said during the past three years, Dixie Jet has faced expenses in the form of the stormwater utility that have not been passed on to tenants. Horton said Dixie Jet is still in arrears on stormwater fees. Dixie Jet owed more than $6,000 as of September.

Horton told the council that he has also received complaints about the proposed five-year term length for leases and rules and regulations that have been created by Dixie Jet as conditions to leases.

But, while the city is responsible for approving rate changes, it is not within the city's jurisdiction to determine the terms of a lease agreement, according to City Attorney Ed Crudup.

Mayor Kim Carter said the city will facilitate a meeting between tenants and Dixie Jet, if desired, but likely won't get involved beyond that.

Dodson said a five-year term is not acceptable because if he wants to sell his hangar, no one will buy it with that term limit. He said he wanted a minimum 10-year lease term but was told he could have nine years, because the FBO's contract with the city expires in nine years.

"Our way of thinking is costs go up ... We don't know what's coming in the back door years ahead," Riddell said. "It would not be prudent for us to lease or set a rate beyond five years. We'll be glad to work with people on an individual basis for longer terms if they'd like, but we're going to have to be very careful about that. It's got to be so that any added utilities thrown our way can be passed along on a pro rata basis."

There have also been complaints about a set of rules and regulations that Dixie Jet intends to make part of the lease agreements.

"There's no need for the FBO to come up with his own set of rules as if he were an emperor out there," said Dodson, who noted that there are state, federal and local laws governing the use of the airport and protecting property.

William D. Bailey Jr., a pilot who co-owns a hangar with Dodson, was not at the council meeting but wrote a letter detailing his objections to the rules.

"We do not agree with these rules and regulations that go beyond rules and regulations that other public airports in the area use in determining leases on their property," his letter stated.

Bailey said that a rule that prohibits personal property affixed to airport property from being removed without written consent of Dixie Jet or the city is unreasonable.

He said the rule should be changed to allow removal of the personal property following consultation with the FBO as long as removal would not damage the airport property, with any damage to be paid for by the lessee.

Bailey also said another rule preventing discharge, disbursement, release, storage, treatment, disposal and escape of pollutants or other hazardous or toxic substances should be reworded, stating that nothing will prevent the storage and utilization of materials, in reasonable amounts, necessary for routine care and maintenance of aircraft and other personal property so long as it is used and disposed of in accordance with the law.

There are also rules prohibiting the sale of food or beverages and flight instruction.

Bailey said that should be amended to state those things are not allowed for profit.

A rule that prohibits selling or offering to sell aircraft should exempt personal aircraft owned by the lessee, he said.

Also, prohibition on selling or dispensing of aviation fuels, lubricants, parts, supplies, accessories, avionics or other related products should exempt those activities during authorized fly-ins sponsored by the Experimental Aircraft Association, he said.

Finally, a provision allowing the FBO to recover all fees and expenses associated with enforcing the rules and regulations is unnecessary, Bailey said, because the law determines who is guilty and what the punishment will be.

"Dodson and I would like to continue our good experience with Covington airport, but we cannot sign a lease that subjugates our property rights and the right to fly using the FAA rules and regulations," he said.

Bailey said that all of the pilots he knows who use the airport do so for a private, personal experience and have no intention of "going commercial."

Riddell previously told the Citizen that illegal flight schools, charter services and commercial maintenance operations have been running out of the airport for years, in violation of FAA regulations and lease agreements with Dixie Jet. The result has been that Dixie Jet is competing against its own customers, he said.

He said the rules and regulations were created from several documents, including FAA rules, city ordinances and a handbook for airport operators.

"They are designed to benefit everybody ... It felt like a good time to create uniformity and consistency in the lease agreements with our tenants," he said.

The new lease terms and proposed rate change would not apply to existing leases, but will go into effect for new or renewed leases, Riddell said.