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State legislators say airport board needs more oversight

Nathan Baker • Feb 3, 2018 at 11:48 PM

Northeast Tennessee state legislators are seeking more control over Tri-Cities Airport, as a project to build a $20 million aerospace park is starting to get off the ground there.

Rep. Matthew Hill, R-7th, filed a bill last week in the General Assembly that, if enacted, would create an executive board of state legislators above regional airport authority boards with the power to review and approve all actions of the authority boards.

The proposed legislation also forbids airport authorities from employing lobbyists and requires the authority board to submit an annual report to the lawmakers on the executive board, the contents of which will be specified by the lawmakers.

Hill said the rest of the members of the Northeast Tennessee House delegation were on board with the law, and Reps. Micah Van Huss, R-6th; Timothy Hill, R-3rd; Bud Hulsey, R-2nd; and John Crawford, R-1st; have all signed on as co-sponsors.

The current Tri-Cities Airport Authority, a governmental board made up of elected officials and appointees representing Washington and Sullivan counties and Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol, are currently overseeing the clearing of land and building of a road for part of a 160-acre park adjacent to the airport in hopes of attracting companies from the aerospace industry.

The project will be funded with $8.5 million in bonding from the authority’s member counties and municipalities, $350,000 from the Tennessee Valley Authority and $4.1 million from the state Department of Transportation.

Hill said he wanted to add the new level of oversight because of the the magnitude of the project and its level of taxpayer funding.

“The whole purpose behind it is to work with the existing authority, creating a reporting mechanism, because they’re doing a good job,” he said. “They’re continuing to grow, expanding, getting investment from state side, and they’ll see more in future.

“Those are tax dollars — a lot of tax dollars in fact — and having that additional layer of transparency and accountability is important.”

The ban on lobbyists in the bill was aimed at the regional authority’s contract with the Stones River Group, a firm hired to help secure state funds for the aerospace project.

Hill said there was “no reason to waste operational and taxpayer dollars on a Nashville-based lobbying group.” He and other state legislators are working for the park project, he said, giving the authority “a really good bargain.”

Neither airport Executive Director Patrick Wilson, nor Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge, a member of the authority board, returned calls seeking comment on the bill.

Mitch Miller, CEO of the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, which has been working closely with the airport authority to help advance the aerospace park project, said he was not aware of the proposed law.

The Washington County Economic Development Council, which is managed by the regional partnership, recently hired former state legislator Ron Ramsey to lobby in its name for funding for transportation projects and the aerospace park.

Starting this month, the Development Council will pay Ramsey $5,000 per month for the next three months with the option to extend the contract, if desired.

Miller said the group hired Ramsey to take advantage of his political clout in the state capital to help advance regional projects.

Hill said the Development Council’s decision to hire a lobbyist was different from the airport authority’s, but he also said it was unneeded.

The road transportation project the council’s board members want Ramsey to advocate, improvements to the interchange at Interstate 26’s Exit 17, Boones Creek Road, is already in the works.

Hill said he expects the project to go out for bids this summer.

The legislator said he believes Eldridge, who he said raised property taxes by the largest amount in county history and is “refusing to let Johnson City residents from having any benefit from it,” is falsely spreading the narrative that the state transportation department is intentionally delaying needed road projects because Hill and other Northeast Tennessee legislators voted against a gas tax increase last year.

“He can talk to me directly,” Hill said. “He doesn’t need to be talking to lobbyists in Nashville.”

The companion to Hill’s bill was filed in the Senate by 1st District Republican Steve Southerland, who represents Morristown. No other senators have signed on as co-sponsors, but Hill said he spoke with Bristol’s Sen. John Lundberg, who “seemed OK with it.”

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