City Council again says no to Navy training

Published 10:30 pm Monday, April 25, 2011

FRANKLIN-For the second time in three months, the City Council voted Monday to end consideration of the Navy’s use of Franklin Municipal Airport for pilot training.

Mayor Jim Councill had the matter placed back on the council’s agenda, urging colleagues to submit a proposal to the Navy before a Friday deadline. Ultimately, the mayor joined four other council members in supporting Councilman Barry Cheatham’s motion to “terminate all discussions and/or negotiations of any nature whatsoever” with the Navy. Councilwoman Mary Hilliard abstained. Councilman Benny Burgess was absent.

The council, over the mayor’s objections, voted 5-2 in February to end consideration of the Navy project, which would have used the city’s airport in Isle of Wight County for touch-and-go training of turboprop pilots who carry people and cargo to carriers at sea.

The Navy subsequently solicited proposals from other interested airfields in the region. The deadline for submission of those proposals is Friday, April 29.

Councill, in a recent “open letter” to citizens, said a contract with the Navy could help the city avert a 25-plus-percent increase in property taxes next year.

Monday’s discussion was acrimonious. During remarks by the mayor, Councilman Greg McLemore and Vice Mayor Raystine Johnson at different times walked out of the room, while McLemore accused Councill of being a “career politician.” Councill and Cheatham sparred verbally.

Councill told his colleagues that the city is facing a more than $1 million shortfall in next year’s budget due to the closure of International Paper Co.’s Franklin mill. Also, real estate tax revenue could be reduced significantly if property values fall as expected after the next reassessment.

He said the Navy deal would bring in an additional $750,000 annually in revenue from a lease of the airfield and up to $1.5 million in additional revenue for services. Those figures have been routinely disputed by council colleagues and project critics, who say the cost of providing required services for the Navy would exceed revenue. In mid-February, City Manager June Fleming roughly estimated the cost of providing required services at $3 million annually.

“I think we owe it to taxpayers to at least get information,” Councill said. “Without information, how can we govern? I’m not proposing we sign anything, but we should at least enter the RFP (requests for proposals) process.”

Councill said he had received numerous phone calls in support of the project but that supporters were intimidated by opponents and wouldn’t come to the meeting.

Councill invited Davenport and Co.’s David Rose to give information on the city’s financial health. Rose was at the meeting to discuss a financial request from the Western Tidewater Regional Jail and said he was not paid to present the information to the council.

The city’s 2010 debt restructuring plan would help bring down the impact of revenue losses in the coming fiscal years, but a tax increase could be necessary by 2015, Rose said.

He added that $750,000 in revenue could translate into $10 million in capital funding.

When Rose finished speaking, Cheatham asked when he could speak.

“This is a one-sided love affair again, isn’t it?” Cheatham asked the mayor.

That’s when Johnson left the room, asking colleagues to “call me when we can speak.”

At one point, the mayor told Cheatham, “You be quiet.”

McLemore also left the room before Councill invited Greg Grootendorst of the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission to speak.

McLemore, who made the Feb. 14 motion to end consideration of the project, questioned the mayor’s motives for bringing the issue back up.

“The bottom line is I don’t trust you, Mr. Mayor,” McLemore said.

Some residents spoke in favor of the project, but the majority in the standing-room-only crowd opposed the Navy’s use of the airport.

Ricky Ivey of North High Street signed up to address the council on the issue but was not called on. He said the planes would have been allowed to fly low over his house if the project had been allowed.

Opponents cited noise and safety concerns.

“I’m pleased it has been put behind us,” Ivey said. “The motion Councilman Cheatham made should take care of this matter.”

Pete Greene of Zuni favored allowing the Navy’s use of the airfield but wasn’t upset by the council’s decision.