BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County Airport is a step closer to getting its air traffic control tower, but not everyone is thrilled with the prospect of spending millions of dollars for a structure that some say is not needed.
For some time now, county Aviation Authority member David Lemon has been arguing that there is not enough traffic at the airport, south of Brooksville, to warrant the major expenditure. Lemon says the authority needs to keep money in its reserve fund in order to maintain the existing facilities.
Last week, Lemon got some support from county Commissioner Jim Adkins.
Prior to a vote approving an operating agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration, Adkins said he wanted to see numbers that justified the need for a tower.
Adkins said he was concerned that if the airport didn't keep up acceptable numbers, FAA support for the tower would fade and it would be totally the county's cost to operate.
Under the agreement, which commissioners ultimately approved by a 4-1 vote, the airport would be responsible for building and maintaining the tower.
The structure is expected to cost between $1.7 million and $3 million dollars, money that would come from the airport reserve if another funding source or a grant cannot be found.
Once the tower is done, the FAA would be responsible for staffing it.
"I don't see a lot of activity at the airport,'' Adkins said.
He proposed a delay in the process to gather good numbers on activity there.
But Commissioner Dave Russell, an avid pilot, said approval of the operating agreement with the FAA would give the county time to gather such numbers.
"This gives us two years. This essentially puts us in queue for FAA to make this final decision,'' Russell said.
The time was needed, he said, for the FAA to work into its budget the cost of staff to run the Hernando tower once it is built.
Adkins asked whether there would be better information available during those two years.
Airport director Don Silvernell said he was gathering what information he could and that there were numerous ways to count traffic at the airport.
When the county first sought FAA approval to begin the tower planning process, Silvernell said, the airport far exceeded the traffic level needed to move forward.
And activity there would have to drop off significantly to cause the FAA begin to scale back its funding for staffing. Silvernell added that such a drastic drop-off was not likely with the military as a tenant at the airport.
Lemon presented the commission with a petition signed by 90 pilots who use the airport saying that they did not need a control tower. He also indicated that previous statistics gathered overstated actual air traffic at the airport.
"Do not authorize any expenditures,'' echoed another Aviation Authority member, Don Whiting. "It's the desire of a few to have this control tower built.''
Former Aviation Authority member Robert Morris saw the situation from a different perspective.
Morris talked about growth at the airport and how there are times when multiple airplanes are coming from different directions and that an air traffic control tower would make the airport safer.
The tower would also enhance the airport's marketability to businesses with an aviation component because insurance ratings at an airport with a tower are better, Morris said.
Russell noted that the county has made improvements at the airport before in order to make it more attractive to future activity. Placing a fire department there, he said, "brought us the National Guard unit.''
Adkins was the sole vote against approving the operating agreement with the FAA. He also voted against a related item in which commissioners approved paying $264,250 to Clough Harbour & Associates to begin engineering work to determine a site for the tower on the airport property and to begin design work.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.