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Desert Aire Airport District votes to eventually dissolve district

by GABRIEL DAVIS
Staff Writer | May 22, 2024 1:20 AM

DESERT AIRE — Grant County Airport District 1, also known as the Desert Aire Airport District, held a special meeting Saturday with members of the Desert Aire community to discuss the district’s future, during which the commissioners voted to begin the process of dissolving the district. 

In a later interview commission Chair Karl Reese explained the vote, which he said is not absolute — the district could change course until the official petition to dissolve the district is filed. 

“In 2020, the constituents of the district voted down a levy, resoundingly, so there's no interest for people, and rightfully so, to pay taxes for something that they perceivably don't need or want, and that's fine,” he said. “So we voted as commissioners to dissolve the district. That doesn't mean it's dissolved today, it just means that we put a plan together, and tentatively by the end of the year, we’ll have dissolved the district.”

Reese said the airport will still be a public-use airport, but the management of the airport will likely transfer to the Desert Aire Owners Association, which leases the airport land to the district. 

“The owners association, like they manage everything else, will have a committee … They'll be held accountable to making sure that there's a plan,” he said. “Their mission for the airport or for the committee is really to identify the projects that need work, establish an annual budget and determine what the source of that budget will be … The other two commissioners have agreed to be part of the committee under the owners association.”

Reese said the district was created in 1994 to make the Desert Aire Airport, which needed repair, eligible for grants from the Washington Department of Transportation.

“The problem is that there is no revenue source for the airport,” Reese said, “and the deeper problem is that only a few people who use the airport have been digging deep into their pockets and paying for the matching funds for these grants, and the airport wasn't operating in a sustainable fashion in the commissioners’ eyes.”

$5,000 goes to the state just as part of being a district, Reese said.

“The airport receives about $18,000 in donations each year from the property owners around the airport and from the Owners Association and various other (sources),” he said. “That $5,000 is approximately a third of the budget.”

Reese said the district’s original purpose of seeking grants no longer applies in Washington.

“In 2013, Washington state had changed the RCWs to include privately owned, public-use airports in their funding,” he said.

This RCW change means that a private entity, such as the Desert Aire Owners Association, will be able to seek out grants to fund airport maintenance and improvements through WSDOT, Reese said. 

“The thing that the community needs to understand and wrestle with is how expensive it is,” he said, “so rather than paying voluntary fees, our recommendation is mandatory fees for the airport. Not landing fees, but for (properties’) access.”

According to Reese, the airport does have some maintenance needs, but the runway is in very good condition. Nonetheless, whoever runs the airport will have to be able to match a percentage of grant funds for repairs or improvements.

“Runways will need to be replaced or refurbished every 20 to 30 years. Well, you need a funding stream to provide matching funds, which are to the tune of a couple hundred thousand dollars,” Reese said. “For instance, the seal coat (we did) had matching funds of like $30,000; a little more achievable, but still a substantial amount when you don't have the money.”

Another issue is that Reese said he is resigning at the end of June as he is moving out of the state, leaving a vacant position on the three-member board.

“Nobody has come forward to fill the position, and we've asked,” Reese said. “There's little to no interest in the community to lead the airport district.”

Reese said he asked during the Saturday meeting if anyone would be willing to step up and serve as a commissioner, and no one volunteered. 

“I think the airport will be more successful without the airport district because nobody wants to be in an elected position,” Reese said. “I think there'll be more appetite to volunteer, to be part of it.”

Reese summed up the three main issues in running the airport district.  

“One is, now, what is the purpose of the district? And then who is going to run it? Because you need three commissioners, and if you don't have three commissioners it shall be dissolved,” he said. “And then is it worth spending $5,000 a year just to be a district when the district could go away and the Owners Association could manage the airport and receive the grants just the same?”

Gabriel Davis may be reached at gdavis@columbiabasinherald.com.

    Airplanes are parked on the tarmac at the Desert Aire Airport during a 2023 fly-in event. If the Desert Aire Airport District is dissolved, the airport will remain open for public use
 
 
    Exterior of the Desert Aire Owners Association building, which sits next to the Desert Aire Golf Course and Desert Aire Airport. The DAOA leases the airport land to the Desert Aire Airport District.
 
 
    Desert Aire Airport District Commissioner Kenneth Broda, left, speaks during an October 2023 candidate forum at Wahluke High School in Mattawa. Commissioner Bob Trantina sits to his right. Broda and Trantina are planning on serving on the Desert Aire Owners Association committee for managing the Desert Aire Airport, according to Commission Chair Karl Reese.