Cuts could cripple airport

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 26, 2015


Local officials’ eyes are on what, if any, cuts will come to Ft. Rucker and the potential devastating impact it could have on the Covington County community.

The Army post has already survived two rounds of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC).

Local officials attended a Monday night meeting where some 1,632 residents came out to voice their concerns.

Some 2,490 personnel could be lost from the post if sequestration is implemented.

The cuts from the sequester are already law and it’s up to Congress to undo it, if possible.

Locally, officials are specifically worried about how the cuts will affect SARA’s refueling contract with the military.

The airport received its first refueling contract in 1991 and the contract took the airport from a small airport to a regional airport.

SARA Co-Manager Jed Blackwell said Wednesday that there are currently 39 employees on staff at the airport, with a “large chunk” coming from the refueling contract.

Blackwell said the contract is a $4 million per year business, and they have pumped an average of 903,000 gallons per year.

“It has been down slightly over the last few years,” he said. “There has not been as many aircraft flying.”

Total fuel sales last year were 810,000 gallons.

“We expect that to increase if there are no major hits to Fort Rucker,” he said.

The reason is that the Army is switching over to a Lakota helicopter, which Blackwell said has a bigger engine and requires more fuel.

“The airport is very beneficial to Ft. Rucker,” he said of the military post, which is home to Army Aviation. “The students train and fly in and around southeast and southwest Alabama. Being able to stop at SARA saves them from have to fly back to post, which saves them time and money.”

Blackwell said losing the contract would definitely be crippling to the airport.

“We would definitely see a reduction in workforce,” he said. “If Fort Rucker were to shut down completely, we’d have to adjust to two to three people. With the sequester, we would have to adjust somewhere in between.”

Opp Mayor John Bartholomew also expressed his concerns for the airport and potential job loss.

“The loss of airport tasking will cripple the operation of our airport,” he said.

Many Opp residents work at Fort Rucker.

“The loss of these positions will place them out of work,” he said.

Bartholomew said he has no doubt that the elimination of these jobs would devastate south central and southeastern Alabama.

“The cities of Enterprise, Daleville and Ozark would be severely impacted,” he said. “The impact would spread east to Dothan and west to both Opp and Andalusia.”

County Commission Chairman Bill Godwin is concerned about the effects cuts would have on the airport and the ability to secure new tenants at the airport hangars.

Right now, the county is paying more than $22,000 a month on the bond issue for the hangar.

Godwin, who spoke to the Andalusia Lions Club on Wednesday, said it doesn’t look likely a tenant will be found in the next six to eight months.

Another concern is whether the airport can keep Vector Aerospace.

“Vector has two leases and one ends in August,” he said. “They are wanting concessions and I don’t know if we can give them.”

If Vector doesn’t renew its lease that would add additional financial obligation for which the county and local municipalities will be responsible.

Godwin said while the buildings were designed for defense subcontracting, local officials may have to think outside the box to get tenants.

He said, currently about $12 million is owed on the bond issue, which he said equates to more than 20 years before the debt is paid in full.

Godwin said that while DRS didn’t come through with jobs, it was paying $45,000 a month for rent.

“At least it kept us from paying the bond issue,” he said.