WESTFIELD – Finance Committee Chair Ralph J. Figy, ward 2 Westfield city councilor, brought a request to the City Council Sept. 17 to approve a transfer of $350,000 from the Stabilization Account to Westfield-Barnes Airport for a concrete repair project on Runway 2-20, which passed 13-0.
Figy said since free cash is not available until it is certified at the end of the year, the only pot of money is stabilization.
“We plan on repaying the loan as quickly as possible. Possible sources of revenue include free cash and possible Department of Transportation Funds at the end of the fiscal year. As this is a serious safety hazard and liability we needed to get this done as soon as possible before winter,” Figy said following the meeting.
At the meeting, At-large Councilor Richard K. Sullivan Jr. asked whether the contractor who did the work was contacted. Figy said that he has been put on notice for potential claim, which is another possible avenue for reimbursement.
Ward 6 Councilor William Onyski, who is the airport liaison, detailed the needed repairs to the council. “Last night I was at the Airport Commission meeting. As unfortunate as this is, we need to get it done and seek remediation later,” he said.
According to Onyski, the seven year old runway is grooved, like the rumble strip on the side of highways, except it is all the way across the runway. He said some of this concrete grooving is breaking apart, leaving small chunks of concrete on the runway which is dangerous to aircraft using the runway.
The other issue is the seal popping out of the expansion joints. Just like a sidewalk, the runway is built in sections. There is material in between these sections that allow for runway expansion and contraction during temperature changes. This material is popping out of the expansion joints which is also dangerous for aircraft. If a section of this material enters a jet engine, it could do major damage to the engine. More importantly, this now presents a danger to those in the aircraft, Onyski said.
The Barnes maintenance crew now must repair the runway when the expansion material falls out. A concrete section is cut out and is repaired with a fast setting material. The urgency of the request is because the winter is coming and water will get in between the defective joints causing further damage because of the freeze/thaw cycle, Onyski added.
During the discussion of the request for approval, At-large Councilor Dave Flaherty said he would like the airport to be “net zero” to the city.
“This is a lot of money, when we can’t afford to do roads. This airport is used by people who own private planes, who should pay for that service. We ought to be presented with a plan to break even again. Over 10 years, we keep hearing there’s a plan, but haven’t figured out a way to break even again. Next year, I’d like to find a way to do that,” he said.
“Places like Gulfstream and all of the other businesses that pay taxes are there because of the airport and all the jobs it brings in,” Onyski said.
“I agree that there’s a lot of income generated by having the Airport in town. If this was a private airport and not city-owned, it would still generate the same amount of money for us, and wouldn’t cost taxpayers money,” Flaherty said.
Airport Manager Christopher J. Willenborg, who started the position in April, responded that the airport was pursuing every avenue to cover the costs. “If for some reason the Airport can’t get the money from MassDOT or some other means, I was assured Free Cash would reimburse stabilization for this,” he said.
“Councilor Flaherty, to your concern, the Airport generates over a million in direct fees to the city. The other part of that is the property taxes,” Willenborg said. He said with an operating budget of $800,000, the airport is “in the black.”
“The state aeronautics did a study last year, (showing) over 2,100 jobs. It’s not the people who own the aircraft, it’s all the people who support it. This airport has tremendous value. I just wanted to articulate that to the council. I look forward to sharing more about that to the council,” Willenborg added.
At-large Councilor Kristen Mello expressed concerns about bond ratings.
“I am looking at a sizable chunk of money. We’ve been told that pulling money from stabilization affects bond rating. Will it affect our bond rating before it gets paid back? What is the money being spent on; how much cement, how much labor? Has anything been done to divert stormwater away from drinking wells. If we’re going to spend a whole lot of money, can we protect ourselves at the same time,” asked Mello.
Willenborg said regarding the breakdown of repairs, he was working closely with CIty Purchaser Tammy Tefft, and looking at using updated products, including for the joint seal.
He also assured Mello that the airport follows strict requirements from the Department of Environmental Protection for stormwater runoff, and all water goes into storm basins. He said the EPA is also coming out with a stormwater pollution prevention plan, and he has asked to have their five-year plan updated to meet the new regulations.
“Is there liability there if the council voted no. Is this a safety issue,” Mello asked.
“It is a safety issue. Our number one factor is safety. If it does get voted down, and an incident (occurs) where an aircraft ingests a piece of the runway, depending on the aircraft, it could cost $30,000 to $40,000 to several million. Our challenge is, during wintertime, it’s harder to do concrete work. We have to do concrete work before winter,” Willenborg said, adding that there is a tentative start date on the repairs of Oct. 5.
Flaherty said the council should look at setting up an enterprise fund for the airport that would take into account the collateral property tax generated there. “It’s something we ought to look at in the future. I think it’s important going forward,” he said
Onyski also said once things clear up, the manager will invite the City Council to tour the airport.
“$350,00.00 is a lot of money that could be used in other ways such as helping out our school systems or repairing roads. I do not think anyone is happy with spending that amount of money on emergency repairs. However, the council made the tough vote to take money out of the stabilization fund to support Barnes Airport and the repairs. I am confident that the monies will be replenished. Unfortunately, it will not be as fast as we all would like,” Onyski said after the meeting.