A vote to petition the Secretary of Transportation for aid to improve Portage’s municipal airport failed Thursday, as city council members cited their concerns with the fine print.
A formal petition is the first step set forth by the Wisconsin Bureau of Aeronautics (BOA) in order for cities to accept entitlement funding. The funds are available to all municipal airports on a yearly basis. Portage has passed on these funds for several years as it developed an airport master plan that is currently pending approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
As Portage’s plans near acceptance, the process of accepting approximately $1.2 million in state dollars begins. Most of the funds would only require a 5% match from the city.
The city’s new airport has been in the works for several years. A 2018 study determined that major improvements would have to be made for the current municipal airport to attract businesses and recreational aviators.
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Due to runway length and tall objects blocking airpaths, the airport is not currently up to FAA guidelines.
“This is just the first step,” Director of Public Works Philip Livingston said. “It does not lock the city into any financial obligations. It simply allows the BOA to act as an agent for the city on future projects and assist us on those plans.”
Accepting the funds would require the city to hand over some oversight responsibilities to the Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, Craig Thompson. The measure is required by state law.
“Anything that there would be funds designated for, would come back to this council for approval before we get the funds. We aren’t spending any money tonight,” District 3 Alder Dennis Nachreiner clarified to the other council members.
With no further discussion, the council voted 3 ayes to 0 against, with 4 abstentions. The motion failed. Nachreiner, Christopher Crawley, District 9, and Steven Rohrbeck, District 4, were all in favor, and District 5 Alder Karen Melito was absent.
The council members who did not vote expressed their misgivings with the power that the petition would grant to the DOT secretary.
In overseeing the project, the secretary would have the right to suspend or discontinue work at any time if additional money was needed to complete the airport. Thompson would also be tasked with accepting, receiving and disbursing any funds granted by the United States under the Federal Airport and Airway Improvement Act.
Additionally, the secretary would have the unrestricted authority to distribute and disclose any materials related to Portage’s grant.
“What does that mean if the council were to bring an item, specific to the petition, to this body and we denied it? Does that give authority to the secretary to override the council?” Alder Eric Shimpach, District 6, asked.
“What this package does is give the BOA control of that bidding process,” Livingston responded. “They come up with the design, they put the project out for bid. They handle all of the dirty work.”
He added that the DOT wouldn’t proceed with project preparations until the council greenlit the plans.
“That’s not how I read this,” Shimpach said, gesturing toward the petition.
Mayor Mitchel Craig asked the council if it was their intention to not move forward with the new airport, to which other abstaining members signaled that that wasn’t the case.
“These clauses are just a little concerning and we need more information before we can vote on it,” District 1 Alder Jami Hayes stated. “I’m afraid we’re going to get overridden on this, and the state’s going to take over.”
The city elected to request a representative from the BOA come before the council at its next meeting to answer their questions about what actions Secretary Thompson could take under the petitioned agreement.
At the conclusion of Mayor Craig’s comments to the council, he asked Alder Nachreiner directly if rumors that he was petitioning to have him removed from office were true. Craig stated that an individual came forward to alert him.
Nachreiner denied the claim.
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The Easter Bunny got some eggs-ercise on Saturday as he made an appearance at Portage's Our House Senior Living for an Easter egg hunt. Around 100 people filled the establishment's backyard, with kids of all ages clamoring to fill their baskets, enjoying cookies, face painting, and balloon animals as well.