Nfld. & Labrador

Stephenville councillor says airport spending is out of control

The Town of Stephenville is spending about 71 per cent of its discretionary spending on its airport. One councillor has had enough.

Finance committee chair Mark Felix says town cannot afford $570,000 spent on airport in past year

Stephenville Coun. Mark Felix says the town is spending too much on its airport. (Stephenville Airport/Facebook)

The Town of Stephenville can no longer afford to bleed taxpayers money to keep its airport afloat, says Coun. Mark Felix.

The chair of the town's finance committee says the level of financial contributions to the airport is too high, and it has to stop.

"I didn't get elected to be popular, I got elected to make the best decisions that I thought would be for the taxpayers," Felix said, following his vote against giving another $100,000 to the airport in August.

"I think, for the most part, a lot of taxpayers are unaware of the type of investment that's going into the airport … at the detriment of getting other development opportunities done in our area."

We can't sustain a half a million dollars of taxpayers' money.- Mark Felix

Felix was the only councillor to oppose the August request for funding. It followed a $25,000 grant in June and a $200,000 operating grant in January. The town also approved a $100,000 land purchase from the airport in December. A request for another unbudgeted operating grant of $145,000 is expected before council this month.

Felix is all for an annual grant to the airport in the $200,000 range, but says the town cannot afford this other regular injection of cash.

"Enough is enough and we need to really look at our investments into the future because we can't sustain a half a million dollars of taxpayers' money."

The Stephenville airport was handed over to a non-profit organization under the National Airports Policy, which was introduced in the mid-1990s. Since then, council has been a regular financial contributor to the airport authority. In 2016, said Felix, council gave a grant of $750,000 to the airport with the intention of seeing the airport become financially viable by 2019. He says the bleeding of municipal coffers has to stop.

To move forward we need a total restructure and a new business plan.- Tom Rose

"We got young families in our community that don't have playgrounds for the kids to play on," he said. "We don't have a dog park and 65 per cent of the residents own dogs. We don't have kids' splash playground. We don't have our roads upgraded and improved. 

"So there's a lot of things we're missing out on if we keep giving a half a million dollars to the airport."

Stephenville has an annual budget of about $8.4 million. Felix says fixed costs come in around $7.6 million, which leaves about $800,000 for discretionary spending for everything else, and he says it's not fair to use $570,000 of that — 71 per cent — on the airport.

Airports elsewhere

Most other airports in the province pay municipalities a grant in lieu of taxes. The airport in Deer Lake, for example, pays council $40,000, but handles its own services. Gander's airport paid the Town of Gander $182,997 in 2018 in lieu of taxes, and it likewise does not receive water and sewer services.

Stephenville Mayor Tom Rose acknowledges the current financial arrangement cannot be sustained, but he says he's sure things can turn around for the struggling airport.

Rose said the airport is critical for the air ambulance medical service and as an alternate runway for flights unable to land in the province's other airports. What's needed to ensure a future, he says, is new business. Part of that includes an increase in passenger traffic, but he'd also like to see a customs office and investment in new infrastructure.

Meetings planned

"For me, to move forward we need a total restructure and a new business plan," he said.

Rose organized a meeting with the airport, MP Gudie Hutchings, MHA Tony Wakeham and Stephenville council this week to discuss what's needed for the airport to survive. It's the first in a series of meetings aimed at looking into solutions for the airport as well as determining where there could be more contributions by both the provincial and federal governments.

"It is a piece of sustainable infrastructure that is so valuable all parties need to get on board," Rose said. 

Messages left with the Stephenville airport were not returned.

N.L. airport facts

Deer Lake Airport

  • Pays grant in lieu of taxes ($40,000 in 2018)
  • Receives no services from the Town of Deer Lake

Gander International Airport

  • Pays grant in lieu of taxes ($182,997 in 2018)
  • Receives no water or sewer services from the town
  • Provides some brush-cutting and quarry access to the town
  • Town provides snow-clearing of roads to the airport
  • Reciprocal agreement for emergency services and some marketing initiatives

Happy Valley-Goose Bay Airport

  • Department of National Defence runs and operates the airfield and aerodrome at the airport
  • Airport authority runs the commercial side of the airport and commercial flights
  • No grants or taxes

St. Anthony Airport

  • Transport Canada retains ownership of the airport
  • Airport located outside municipal boundary
  • No services, grants or taxes

St. John's International Airport

  • Pays city municipal taxes ($885,000 this year)
  • Receives water services from the city
  • Reciprocal agreement with the city for emergency services

Wabush Airport

  • Transport Canada retains ownership of the airport
  • Transport Canada pays an average of $85,000 annually to the town as a grant in lieu of taxes
  • Town provides water, sewer and emergency services to the airport

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