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Plan For Charlotte Airport Authority Moves Forward

Ken Lund

A bill to hand control of the Charlotte Airport over to a regional authority passed the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday and now heads to the full Senate for approval. The move comes over the objection of Charlotte city leaders and several Mecklenburg County lawmakers. 

Charlotte's mayor and city council are pleading with lawmakers to put the brakes on Senate Bill 81 and closely study its potential effects. For one thing, it's unclear how the city would transition more than $800 million worth of outstanding bonds for the airport to a regional authority and what that would do to the city's credit rating. 

"I sure want to know the answer before I vote," said Senator Dan Clodfelter of Mecklenburg County.  "I think anybody does - want to know that. Were not just messing around with the credit of the city of Charlotte or the airport of Charlotte. If we mess this kind of thing up it impacts the credit of every local government in the state of North Carolina and probably the state's credit, too."

Mecklenburg Democrat Joel Ford and Republican Fletcher Hartsell of Cabarrus County echoed similar concerns, along with three other lawmakers on the Senate Finance Committee who are not from the Charlotte-region. 

But the bill's sponsor – and committee co-chairman – Senator Bob Rucho of Matthews assured them they'd have an answer to the bond question before the measure comes up for debate in the full senate. 

Critics have other concerns, too. Such as,  what might happen to the salaries and benefits of Charlotte airport workers who are currently city employees? Rucho says he "can't imagine" anything will change for airport employees. And he rejects the notion that state lawmakers are taking the airport away from Charlotte.

"It's not taking it away from anybody," said Rucho. "What it is is authorizing an authority to allow us to raise it to the next level so that full economic potential can come from that facility."

Rucho's measure would create a 13-member Charlotte Airport Authority of volunteers appointed from the city and six surrounding counties.

The Charlotte Airport is currently a department of the city of Charlotte, but it neither takes money from, nor contributes to the city's general fund.

While most large airports in North Carolina are run by regional authorities, the majority of the nation's largest airports – including Atlanta and Chicago - are city-operated.