Enhancing Vista Field Airport would raise Port of Kennewick property taxes

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 22, 2013 

Keeping Kennewick's Vista Field Airport flying would require Port of Kennewick voters to agree to raise their property taxes.

Port officials told the Herald that the port's levy rate most likely would need to double to afford the increased operating losses and the $42.6 million cost of improving the small general aviation airport near the Three Rivers Convention Center.

The port has been struggling to find a way to revitalize the 90-acre airfield after deciding two years ago to keep the airport open in hopes of recruiting more businesses.

After efforts to find an operator for the airport fell through, the port hired Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. for a $225,000 independent review.

Enhancement is one of the two options presented.

The port asked law firm Foster Pepper and financial firm Seattle-Northwest Securities about how it could pay for the "aerotropolis" outlined in the recently released draft study.

Airport revenues would grow if the port invested in a new operator building, hangars and a loop road around the airport and attracted aviation-related businesses to about five acres near the airport. But expenses would climb too.

The annual loss would grow from the current $390,000 to about $640,000, according to the study. That includes depreciation, which would cover the cost of maintaining and eventually replacing the airport facilities.

The most likely scenario to pay for an enhanced airport would be asking voters to approve a bond measure to add about 26 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, said Tim Arntzen, the port's executive director.

And covering the predicted increased operating loss would mean asking for a levy lid lift of 6 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, he said.

The result would bring the port's property tax levy from 33 cents per $1,000 to 65 cents per $1,000, Arntzen said. That would mean an annual $130 bill for homes worth $200,000 in the district, compared with the current bill of $66 for the same home.

The draft study did not include any funding sources other than property taxes. The Port of Kennewick district includes Kennewick, south Richland, West Richland, Benton City and most of unincorporated Benton County.

Vista Field Airport, unlike other Tri-City airports, does not qualify for Federal Aviation Administration funding most airports use to pay for capital improvements because it is too close to the Pasco and Richland airports.

Arntzen said the FAA funding can pay up to 90 percent of capital improvements for airports.

"Without a voter-approved, airport-specific tax measure, any airport expansion would compete for funding with projects throughout the port district," Arntzen said.

Arntzen said the port's current financial projections show that unless an airport-specific tax is approved by voters, the port's financial future would be unsustainable by 2019 because of airport operating deficits.

As a contrast, tearing down the airport and redeveloping it would be paid for by the sale of airport land, possibly earning the port about $3.7 million, according to the study.

The study said it would cost the port $11.9 million to close the airport and add infrastructure for redevelopment, including roads, but land sales would pay that cost. That estimate includes $3 million to close down the airport.

The "Downtown" scenario would include retail, office and industrial buildings, with about 1,400 residential units built on the upper floors of mixed-used buildings, according to the study.

It would draw on its proximity to the Three Rivers Entertainment District, Columbia Center mall and nearby medical and industrial development.

Also included in the plan is a nine-acre park and the roads and sidewalks that would be added to better link the area to its surroundings, according to the study.

The result will be a net gain to the port, eight times more economic output once the project is done, more than eight times more jobs and 23 times more private development added to the tax rolls compared to keeping and improving the airport, according to the study.

Airport supporters have argued that the airport can't be judged on math alone. They say that an airport is infrastructure that allows people to come in and out of the community and shouldn't be required to make money.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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