PITTSFIELD >> Leases involving Pittsfield Municipal Airport land generated considerable discussion during the first meeting of a study group examining how the facility is managed and weighing whether changes could make it more cost-effective.
The study group, which was appointed by Mayor Linda M. Tyer after a request from the City Council, held its organizational meeting Thursday at City Hall. The nine-member committee began to discuss how it will examine the airport operation in the coming months — aiming to produce a report in May.
Airport Manager Robert Snuck told the committee he found several questionable leases after beginning in the post last year and recently researching the issue as part of an Airport Commission effort to boost revenue while controlling expenses.
Snuck said some of the lease agreements he found — particularly concerning a 30-acre parcel carved out of the more than 550-acre airport site for the Westwood Business Center Park — seem to be out of compliance with Federal Aviation Administration or state regulations for airports. For instance the FAA has regulations concerning how revenue derived from airport property can be used, he said.
"I think things were done I'll say were under the table," Snuck said at one point.
He added that some leases were granted for much longer than the 20-year timeframe normally required in the regulations. Some were for 40 years at $1 per year, with an option for 40 additional years at the same nominal cost, Snuck said.
Airport Commission Chairman Christopher Pedersen, who is a member of the study group, said on Friday that it remains unclear exactly what agreements were reached when the Westwood park was created during the mid-1980s, but he believes additional paperwork might be found to clarify the situations. He said there is evidence that the several parties involved were discussing agreements at the time, but not all paperwork has been located.
Putting the matter into context, he said the two leases granted for 40 years at $1 a year were on the five acres of the Westwood park that is owned by the city, while another 25 acres is owned by the airport. Overall, he added, total revenue on leases there is low, "maybe $6,000 annually," and not a major potential source of income to support the operation.
Pedersen said it also is typical of many industrial or business park sites that incentives, such as a tax break or low lease figure, are used to lure a business to the area. All of the park parcels are now leased, he said. There are at least seven available business sites at the Barker Road park.
Thomas Sakshaug, chairman of the study committee, said the group will want to review all leases associated with the airport and asked for copies of that information, along with other financial details of the operation.
Former Ward 5 Councilor Jonathan Lothrop — who for many years represented the ward where the airport off Tamarack Road is located — asked for spreadsheets of the financial data on which categories could be added. He offered to put that part of the study together as a subtask, and that was agreed to by committee members.
Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell, current Ward 5 Councilor Donna Todd Rivers and Councilor at large Melissa Mazzeo petitioned the council last month to ask Tyer to launch a study. Connell and Mazzeo had in the past raised the issue of whether having the city manage the airport is cost effective compared to other arrangements, such as privatization.
Those three councilors were named to the committee, along with Lothrop and Sakshaug. Also selected by Tyer were Michael Lyon of Lyon Aviation, which acts as the fixed-base operator private firm at the airport, providing services like fueling and hanger space for craft using the facility; Pedersen, Ashley Sulock, and attorney C. Jeffrey Cook.
Connell and other members said they want to focus first on the financial details of the operation, including budget figures like revenue and expenses, staffing and long-term plans for airport upgrade work, in the pipeline or being discussed.
Snuck and Airport Inspector Brian Spencer, the two city employees, also attended the group's organizational session.
Sakshaug won agreement for a second meeting on Feb. 25 and tentatively set a third meeting for March 9. Both sessions were scheduled for Room 203 at City Hall at 7 p.m.
Pedersen said the airport offices also would be used for meetings if space is unavailable at City Hall. Sakshaug said he wanted to schedule one or more meetings there so that committee members can view details of the facility.
The airport dates to 1932, Snuck said, opening with only the smaller, unpaved runway that now runs at an angle across the main runway. The main runway was lengthened and the approaches cleared back during a multi-year, $21 million project that will conclude this spring with repaving for old sections of the runway.
The improvements, financed primarily through federal and state grant funding, were designed to allow larger craft to use the airport and meet updated FAA safety requirements. For most such projects, the city has supplied a small percentage of the overall cost, from 5 to 10 percent of the total.
Lyon said the facility is regularly used by people and businesses from around the county, such as second home owners and Williams College or Canyon Ranch visitors. The use "is definitely countywide," he said.
The Westwood Center park is managed by the Pittsfield Economic Revitalization Corp. PERC officials could not be reached Friday for comment.
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