City votes to terminate Dixie Jet contract

COVINGTON -- The Covington City Council voted Wednesday to terminate the contract with Dixie Jet Services, the fixed base operator at the Covington Municipal Airport, a move that will cost more than $325,000 and bring all airport operations under the control of the city.

Councilman Chris Smith made the motion to terminate the 20-year contract, which has about 10 years remaining, and Councilman Keith Dalton seconded the motion. The vote carried 3-2 with councilwomen Hawnethia Williams and Janet Goodman voting against the move. Councilman Michael Whatley was absent from the meeting.

Prior to the vote, City Manager Steve Horton offered some cautionary words.

"Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay. I want to make sure people are where they need to be on this," he said. "I have hesitancy in everything. I always know there is more than one alternative."

Smith told Horton he was confident Horton and his staff could handle operations at the airport.

"We will do what we have to do," Horton said.

Mayor Kim Carter acknowledged it was not an easy decision, particularly when it would affect someone's livelihood.

"But we have to make tough decisions for the greater good of the greater population," she said. "Our customers are not being served. ... We have bent over backwards trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, to make it work. It's just another hiccup, but we don't want another hiccup."

The council's action came on the heels of a recent fuel shortage at the airport. City officials were notified last week that one of the airport's customers, Standridge Color Corporation out of Social Circle, had been unable to get JetA fuel at Covington Municipal Airport and had to fly to another airport to fuel up. Fuel was delivered the following afternoon.

Don Young, an employee with Standridge Color, told the council during its public meeting Wednesday that the company needed about 120 gallons of fuel for an early morning departure.

"According to what we were told, there was no fuel," Young said.

He said they had to carry the jet to Greensboro to fill up with fuel, which cost the company roughly $1,900.

Young said Standridge Color keeps five jets at the Covington Municipal Airport. He said the only issue the company has had at the local airport is an inconsistency with fuel.

On the other hand, Lance Flynn, chairman of the Airport Advisory Committee, said Young was "being very kind." He said "there is always something" at the airport, but fuel is the major issue and instability with the operations is troubling.

Smith said his biggest concern is these problems would cause customers, such as Standridge Color, to leave the Covington Municipal Airport.

Dixie Jet's relationship with the city has been in question for several months and the issue came to head in April when Horton and Carter recommended the council review early termination with the FBO.

One of the primary reasons for moving in a different direction, Carter said at the time, was to give the city more control over the future development of the airport and to maximize property taxes, sales taxes and job creation in light of existing industries in the area.

In August, the city hired Vincent Passariello to be Covington's new airport engineer. Horton is airport manager, but has handed over daily oversight of the facility to Passariello, who could eventually transition into the role of airport manager.

The contract with Dixie Jet expires in 2019 and requires 90 days notice to terminate early. Upon notice of early termination, the city must pay 10 percent of the outstanding contract amount, which in this case is $367,389.33. The balance would be due at the end of the 90-day period.

When reached for comment Thursday, Dixie Jet President Bob Riddell said he believes this latest incident with Standridge was blown out of proportion to meet political ends of some city officials.

"Of course! Anyone with eyes and anyone with ears who takes the time to look at both sides of this can see that," Riddell said. "It's totally asinine, the most ridiculous thing, it's not even veiled. They did this to find a reason (to terminate the contract) and they have from day 1."

Riddell said he believes a small number of elected and appointed officials have tried for years to slowly squeeze him out of business, but have acted "cowardly" and are "corrupt."

He said his business has been adversely impacted by expansion and improvement projects undertaken by the city in the past several years. He has either had to close completely or disrupt services to accommodate the construction schedules -- schedules Riddell said could have been better managed.

For example, he said he was told that improvements to the original runway, taxiways and ramp would begin in June 2009 and would take three months to complete. After telling his customers that he would close during that time, Riddell said he was advised month after month that the construction was delayed and did not actually begin until September of that year and wasn't completed until January. He said the city denied his request to abate his rent and utilities during the time he was closed for the construction.

"We were effectively shut down from June to January with no revenue, and it went on and on," Riddell said. "Guess who was hurt those nine months that went on? Guess who stayed silent? Guess who endured a lot from city, accusing us of being a little late here, little late there, all the while we had a loss of revenue. Where is the common sense? Where is the good judgment?"

Riddell said he has made great improvements over the past 10 years to the operations at the airport, all at great cost to him personally. He said he currently owes $1.1 million for the investments he has made at the airport.

Despite a request by Horton that Riddell and Dixie Jet's manager, Rusty Anglin, attend Wednesday's City Council meeting, Riddell said he chose not to be there.

"I did not want to give the city the satisfaction of looking at me when they took that vote," Riddell said. "There was no doubt in my mind that the mayor had her votes already."

Riddell said he is prepared to take action in light of the city's vote to terminate its contract with Dixie Jet.

"I guarantee I will use any recourse I have," he said. "If we can find an attorney or a firm who can represent us, we will. ... I have no power, no influence and no money now -- the city's seen to that. I'm at their mercy, but believe me, the fire is still there. ... I will take all my legal rights and use them to the best of my ability and fight to the very end. In my personal opinion, I would be more concerned about how they have dealt with this. Can they hold their heads up high? We can."

In the meantime, Riddell pledges to continue operating as he has.

"We are holding our heads very high and we will continue to give the best service we can give as long as we can give it," he said.

Citizen Staff Reporter Crystal Tatum contributed to this story.