The city of Lincolnton is understandably looking for ways to cut expenses and avoid or at least minimize a tax increase. The exercise of trimming the budget is thus commendable, provided wise decisions are made.
Walking away from matching grant funding at the airport would not be wise. City leaders have not yet made up their minds on what to do about this. Some council members are appropriately concerned about the tax dollars involved, about the accountability of the airport and about benefits to the citizens of Lincolnton. But others are also right to be concerned about yanking funding for airport upgrade projects that have vast potential to create jobs in the area at a crucial time, missing out on an opportunity that will not likely come again.
The money in question is not insignificant. According to City Manager Jeff Emory’s memo to council members, the city has already committed to about $135,000 in matching-grant funding for the airport, but the airport is now seeking an additional $150,000, for a total of $285,000.
To most citizens, that does seem like a lot of money. But how much is it in the big scheme of things? The city’s overall proposed budget for 2012-13 is more than $28.1 million; the total matching funds request from the airport amounts to slightly more than 1 percent of this.
At the moment, Emory has said his budget proposals, which include the matching funds for the airport, would not force an increase in taxes, but he has expressed concerns about budgetary pressures that could force a tax hike in the near future if the city can’t find some places to hold the line on expenses.
Consider, however, what’s at stake with these matching funds. Due to a project elsewhere that was delayed, federal grant money became available for a $2.3 million glide-slope system upgrade at the airport. This upgrade has the promise to open this county to significant commercial traffic that it hasn’t previously been able to handle. While the airport has already been growing, this investment in airport infrastructure would make a true regional competitor for small-jet traffic.
It’s not a hard sale to corporate customers once the upgrades are in place: Land at Lincolnton and be in uptown Charlotte sooner than you would have been with all the nonsense that accompanies landing at Charlotte-Douglas.
When communities like Lincolnton can attract substantial corporate air traffic, they consistently become a magnet for additional job growth. And job growth will go a long ways toward helping erase the city’s budgetary woes.
The city and county are being asked to provide a small “match” of local money to accompany the federal funds. But the local financing is miniscule beside the federal portion. If the city and county don’t ante up, this project doesn’t happen. And if it doesn’t happen now, the city and county won’t be able to afford to pay for it out of their own pockets later. This is a one-time window and it’s important that our local leaders don’t miss out.
City leaders are wise to look for places to cut, but chopping off a project with strong potential returns would be a mistake. The city could make even larger cuts in plenty of other places in the proposed budget.
Holding the line on unnecessary overtime or engineering contracts (especially those that are the subject of alleged criminal activity) would be a good start. Phase III of the rail-trail, which doesn’t appear to produce anything other than a scenic place for vagrants to panhandle fitness buffs, is slated for half a million dollars in the budget. Why not put this boondoggle on indefinite hold? These changes might not allow for tax breaks, but might open the door for the city to offer its deserving employees a cost-of-living increase while perhaps avoiding proposed changes to their benefits.
Regardless, it’s clear that the airport funding isn’t the best place for the city cut back. Let’s not be penny-wise and dollar-foolish.