Watertown continues its love affair with federal airport dollars. In a special meeting Wednesday, the Watertown City Council unanimously approved spending $25,000 to further subsidize local flights and secure a million-dollar Airport Improvement Grant.
The Federal Aviation Administration gives airports at least a million dollars each year that at least 10,000 people board their planes. Airports can use the AIP grants to build and fix runways, lighting, signs, drainage, weather towers, and access roads and make other improvements; they cannot use the money on (among other things) maintenance vehicles, office equipment, landscaping, art, hangars, or marketing plans.
As of this week, Watertown’s airport was at 8,700 emplanements. Extrapolate that weekly pace, and by the holidays, Watertown should reach about 10,600, enough to secure the AIP money. However, nervous that 6% was too small a margin, councilman Don Roby proposed giving people $25 gift certificates—”Watertown Bucks” to incentivize more flyers to Pierre and Denver:
Money for the promotion will come from two city budgets — $11,000 from the general fund and $14,000 from the airport budget. The $14,000 was originally allocated for consulting fees, but had since gone unspent.
With Watertown Bucks being awarded to passengers who board an ADI plane in Watertown beginning Nov. 1 in $25 allotments, the promotion is designed to maximize the likelihood the airport reaches the 10,000 passenger enplanement milestone that must be met by Dec. 31.
…By offering Watertown Bucks in exchange for boarding the plane, city and Chamber officials hope to encourage passengers to continue to shop in Watertown.
“We want you to shop in Watertown and keep it local,” Roby said. “But we also want to get those boardings up” [Dan Crisler, “City Council Invests $25,000 to Help Airport Reach Milestone,” Watertown Public Opinion, 2017.10.26].
Taxpayers are already paying the majority of flight costs from Watertown: a federal subsidy of $178 per passenger keeps tickets down to $49 to Pierre and $99 to Denver. The city council is now piling on this local subsidy to incentivize an outcome that already seems likely and to get money for which the city doesn’t yet have a plan:
Speaking to the Public Opinion after the meeting, Roby said he and others have ideas of what to do with the $1 million if the city reaches the milestone, but nothing is set in stone.
“If that comes in, that will just go into the strategy we are planning,” he said. “We have done and will continue to do some improvements out there. But $1 million gives a whole new set of options. I don’t want to speculate on what those might be. But it will be put to good use” [Crisler, 2017.10.26].
Even without a plan, I suppose it makes sense for Watertown to grab all the federal cash it can. The original Trump budget called for eliminating the Essential Air Service program that makes Watertown’s cheap flights possible. Congress passed and Trump signed a six-month extension of the rural air service subsidy a month ago, but the rural-airport-killing cut is still in play in Washington.
I welcome debate from all readers, liberal and especially conservative, on whether we can justify government subsidies for activities already chugging along in the marketplace. I invite observations on the whether there’s a contradiction in using a local shopping promotion to make it cheaper for people to seek shopping and entertainment out of town.
But one clear good coming from this decision: Watertown is putting $14,000 in its own flyers’ pockets instead of blowing that cash on airport consultants.