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County board cuts airport support by half

The Lake County Board of Commissioners faced a passionate crowd of aviation enthusiasts at its agenda meeting two weeks ago after making the decision to discontinue funding of the Richard B. Helgeson Airport in rural Two Harbors. The board had been contributing to the airport’s operation for the last 15 years, according to city officials.

One week after hearing from airport users, the board voted Tuesday to reinstate half the airport’s funding for this year.

“I’m extremely disappointed in the action that they took,” Two Harbors City Councilor Seth McDonald told the News-Chronicle on Wednesday. “The surrounding areas definitely benefit from an airport.”

McDonald, who is on the airport commission, said the board has budgeted $20,000 for the airport annually since 1998 and withdrew its contribution this year without any notification. That amount represents 13 percent of the airport’s total budget.

McDonald said he didn’t hear about the lost funding until March, nearly three months after the board approved its 2014 budget. Now, he said, city officials will have to scramble to make up the difference. “That will be a discussion that will have to happen,” McDonald said. The City of Two Harbors has its next regular council meeting on Monday.

At Tuesday’s county board meeting, Commissioner Brad Jones said many of his constituents have called him about airport funding. He said that some feel that they are subsidizing airplane owners’ expensive pastime by keeping fuel and hangar rent prices low.

“A plane is a hobby and a luxury in Two Harbors,” Jones said.

McDonald said low prices keep the hangars full and draw people to the airport for refueling. Renting a hangar at the Two Harbors airport costs $95 per month, which McDonald said is on par with other local airports.

He also touted the countywide benefits of the airport. He said it brings in tax revenue by drawing tourists to the area and gives local contractors work during capital upgrades. It also acts as a base for a number of air missions, like forest fire suppression, search and rescues or medical evacuations.

“There are these services that are being offered and used by Two Harbors and Lake County residents,” he said.

Commissioners cited a stressed budget as the reason for the cut in funding. The Silver Bay Municipal Airport also receives funding from the county, which was cut in half this year. They received $4,000 instead of the regular $8,000 contribution.

“It comes down the strained budget we have,” Commissioner Rick Goutermont said at the April 1 agenda meeting.

McDonald said he’s worried that the budget cut will send the airport into a “death spiral.” If the county withdraws its support permanently, private parties may be less interested in investing in the airport and higher rental fees might drive aviators away.

“It just starts a chain reaction. That’s our concern,” he said.

The commissioners promised to consider airport funding again when 2015 budget discussions begin.

“It behooves us to seriously look at this again next year,” Commissioner Rich Sve said.

LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
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