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In split vote, Hernando commission settles contentious airport lease issue

Wayne Dukes adjourned without public comment.
Published May 24, 2017

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes made it clear Tuesday that he wanted to see the issue about who would get to lease and then buy the old Brooksville Air Center settled once and for all.

His insistence came despite the fact that questions were raised about the timing of the submission of proposals, that the confusing rules the county was following are in the process of being changed and that people in the audience wanted to weigh in on the issue.

In a 3-2 vote where Dukes would not allow any comment from other bidders, the commission approved an 18-month lease for $7,500 a month, with a plan to purchase, by Global Jetcare, an air ambulance company that has been at the airport for several years in smaller quarters.

After the vote, Dukes adjourned the meeting immediately, and commissioners began to leave. Robert Rey of Jet Concepts, an airplane management company also seeking larger quarters, strode up to the podium loudly voicing his disappointment to Commissioner John Mitten, who had been absent from the last discussion and became the swing vote on the lease.

Rey told Mitten he had submitted the first lease offer, which under the county's rules would mean that his was the offer others would have to compete against.

Two weeks ago, the commission deadlocked on how to handle the lease. Commissioners John Allocco and Dukes wanted to grant the lease to Global Jetcare at that time. But Champion and Commissioner Nick Nicholson were concerned that there was too much confusion and too many unanswered questions to cleanly execute the lease. They instead wanted to open the availability of a lease to a formal bidding procedure.

The commission compromised by allowing a continuation of the decision until Tuesday, when Mitten was back to break the tie. They also set the parameters that the lease would be for 18 months, that Jet Concepts would have to provide a letter showing its financial ability to take on the ultimate purchase of improvements on the site and that others could not add new proposals to the mix.

Michael Brannigan, the attorney representing the other air ambulance company at the airport, Jet ICU, had traded numerous emails with the county legal staff leading up to Tuesday's discussion, including a proposed lease, but commissioners did not consider it.

Commissioners also didn't talk in detail about a fourth proposal that was mentioned by Jon Jouben, the deputy county attorney. Jouben started the meeting by telling commissioners that they had four options. They could approval Global Jetcare or they could approve Jet Concepts. Their other choices were to reject both companies and offer the lease in a formal bid process or a formal request for proposals.

Jouben also explained that the policy they were relying on to make their decision was crafted at a time when leases were simple and when the airport's only leases were of property. The old Brooksville Air Center, which has also gone by the name of Corporate Jet Solutions and Transformation Aviation Services, includes both a hangar and an office building that are part of the lease.

Businesses at the county's airport can buy improvements to the land such as the hangar and the office building, but the airport only leases the land to businesses.

Nicholson said that "the only way to be fair and not have a possible lawsuit'' was to open up a new process and let all interested businesses submit proposals.

"My personal opinion,'' he said, "is that we not get sued.''

Champion said he had met with and was impressed by the three companies he knew were interested in the property and that "we need to find a way to make them all happy.''

Allocco said he didn't want to see any more time wasted on discussing the issue. But Champion persisted, saying the existing policy would allow someone to come in at the last minute before a commission agenda closed at noon on Thursday and become the only bidder for a valuable county asset.

"I think that's ridiculous,'' Champion said.

Mitten said he had to side with an entrepreneur who was possibly trying to make a move for his business without the competition knowing about it, and he voted with Allocco and Dukes to give the lease to Global Jetcare.

"To be fair,'' Champion said, "Jet Concepts had an offer in first. . . . You're actually making their case.''

He added, "We need to be fair. . . . It needs to be fixed.''

Global Jetcare had both the financial support of SunTrust Bank and the verbal support of bank executive Jim Kimbrough. Rey has argued that those not connected to influential interests at the airport have not had a level playing field to do business there.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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