RENSSELAER — Jasper County Council President Rein Bontreger was forced to break a 3-3 split vote on a request by the Jasper County Airport Authority to spend $690,000 to purchase 80 acres to expand the runway that will accommodate small jets.
Three councilmen were against the expenditure — Paul Norwine, Brett Risner and Gary Fritts. Bontreger voted “aye” and the request was passed.
Of the $690,000 the airport asked to spend, $630,000 will be reimbursed from federal and state grants over the next four years, costing the airport just $30,000.
Ray Seif, airport director, told the council they have been working to purchase the property since last year and to wait could mean the property would no longer be available or could become more costly. He argued the planned runway expansion, which is still years down the road, would bring business and revenue to the county. He said it will send the signal that “Jasper County is open for business.”
Risner asked, “Does Jasper County really need a 5,000-foot runway?”
Seif responded with a question, “Does Jasper County need a large employer to come to the community?”
He said the county’s largest employers already use the existing runway, but if the company needs a longer runway, their planes have to land elsewhere. Passengers then must be driven to the county, sometimes an hour away.
“It’s inconvenient,” he said, adding that these companies would like to be able to land at Jasper County.
Norwine said he spoke to the CEO of one of those companies and was told they did not need that runway and told Norwine to vote “no.” He also said farmers don’t think it’s necessary either. He was also concerned that the property would be removed from the property tax roll since it would become government property.
Seif said he has letters from these companies saying they are interested in the larger runway.
Seif said the current runway, which stretches north/south, can be difficult for planes to land and take off due to winds coming from the west. The proposed runway would stretch east/west instead. He said the purchase would not increase taxes because there is the grant money available to the airport for the project.
Airport board member Sean Yallaly said the current appraisal on the property is only good for a certain period of time. Another board member, Ken Ross, said there is a June 10 deadline to apply for the grant that would reimburse them for the purchase.
“We would have to wait another year to reapply,” he said.
He also pointed out the money is from the FAA, not taxes. Airport improvement funds come from airline ticket sales, airplane fuel taxes and other sources, not property taxes.
Fritts complained the airport board was pushing them “into a corner” because of the deadline pressure.
The councilmen were also concerned about businesses looking to locate along the Indiana 114/I-65 corridor due to building height limits imposed by the FAA near airports.
Seif didn’t see that as an issue. He explained later, “It’s not going to impact industrial business growth on the I-65/114 corridor. If anything, it will help, not hinder, 114 expansion.”
Rensselaer Mayor Steve Wood was not in favor of the runway expansion, either. He told the council the city expanded its utilities out to the interstate in hopes of attracting more businesses along Indiana 114, but haven’t seen the growth they expected. His concern was the airport would hinder businesses because of restrictions around the airport.
“What happens to that side of the road and across the road?” he asked. He said they also had planned to build a water tower in the area.
Before casting his tie-breaking vote, Bontreger said he sees the concerns on both sides.
“I see the opportunity that this is the next step. There’s a chance to make a little more on the money if you go ahead and appropriate the property. It puts you in a position to make a land swap down the line. I feel like I’m concerned that it might put the airport budget at risk, but they have spent below their levy. So that’s enough pontificating. Tonight I will say ‘aye.’”