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Local Column

Olson: Airport authority a tough sell

I learned a few things at the DeKalb County Economic Development Corp.’s lunch this week about DeKalb Taylor Municipal Airport.

For one, it appears that the former army planes that have been parked facing Peace Road for more than two years might move soon.

Airport manager Tom Cleveland says at least a couple of the camouflage-painted planes with the white star against a field of red on the tail – they’re former Chilean Army planes – might be headed elsewhere in the not-too-distant future.

I’ll miss them, actually. They give the place a real airport look.

Jack Penning of Volaire Aviation Consulting, which helps run the airport, talked to DCEDC members at Faranda’s on Wednesday about the airport’s importance to the local economy. It creates or supports 81 jobs and has a local economic impact of almost $11 million a year. It’s critical for serving the area’s corporate employers and Northern Illinois University.  

More than $35 million in state and federal funds has been invested there from 2000 to 2014, and its long runway, low fuel prices, and location outside of O’Hare and Midway airports’ airspace are distinct advantages.

It is much more than just a place for aviation hobbyists to take to the skies.

During the question-and-answer portion of the event, DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith raised the possibility of creating a regional airport authority to fund and manage the facility.

DeKalb Taylor, near the intersection of Peace Road and Pleasant Street, is owned and operated by the city of DeKalb, and the city still has to subsidize operations there. While DeKalb picks up the tab, others in the region also reap the benefits of the airport.

By “others in the region,” yes, we’re mostly talking about where I live, Sycamore. Industries in Sycamore including Johnson Controls and Upstaging are among those that use the airport. Some of the jobs that the airport supports are in Sycamore, and some of the people who work at the airport live in Sycamore.

This isn’t the only situation where DeKalb can look to the north and question its neighbor’s contribution. This year, DeKalb will contribute $40,000 to the DeKalb County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Sycamore contributes about $1,000, despite having almost 300 hotel rooms and benefiting from efforts to bring tourism to the area. The city of Sandwich, with one hotel, contributes 20 times as much.

I know this in part because I am a member of the DCCVB board.

If I were on the DeKalb City Council, I’d be looking for others to share some of the burden in these regional efforts.

Would a local airport authority work? I’m not keen on creating new governments, as we have too many as it is. Former Gov. Bruce Rauner flatly refused to support creating any new government, but with a new governor in place, it might be a possibility.

I asked how an airport authority would tax people, and Penning said that it would have the authority to levy a property tax of up to 10 cents per $100 of equalized assessed value. No airport authorities in the state are at that maximum, he said, and some don’t levy any property tax at all.

The airport generates millions for the local economy, but it seems unlikely that too many people in any region you care to define would vote for a potential property tax increase to pay for an airport that they can’t use to fly coach to Puerto Vallarta (where it’s 80 degrees at the moment.)

If boundaries could be drawn to include all the corporate entities that use the airport, so that the burden on homeowners was minimal, maybe there would be a chance. But still, likely a tough sell.

It’s understandable that DeKalb is looking for ways of sharing some of the costs of these regional efforts.

Sycamore’s star has been on the rise in DeKalb County. For years, Sycamore had steady, consistent housing growth while DeKalb was largely stagnant. Seems only natural that DeKalb’s leaders would look to their neighbors and wonder if they’re paying their fair share.

Getting money from people who aren’t obligated to pay you, though, isn’t so easy. Homeowners already are paying too much in property taxes, and any plan, agreement or arrangement that’s going to increase them in the slightest is a non-starter for many of us.

• Eric Olson is general manager of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 2257, email eolson@shawmedia.com, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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