Saturday, July 13, 2013

It’s good to see people standing up to be heard

There’s always something a bit inspirational about a grumpy mob standing up to its elected representatives and demanding action, even if they are not quite sure what that action should be.

In the grand tradition of town hall meetings, about 175 good citizens turned out earlier this week at Crandall Public Library to find out why Warren County is wasting money on an airport expansion few of its citizens will ever use.

It’s perplexing why this particular expenditure has captured the fancy of so many.

The airport has been around for a long time and until recently it’s hard to remember a ripple of concern about its cost or value. The current plan to lengthen the runway, based on FAA recommendations and paid for predominantly with federal money, has also been in the works for many years, but only in the 11th hour has the citizenry demanded a thorough vetting.

Thanks, or blame depending on your perspective, falls in the lap of Supervisor Mark Westcott, who is relatively new to the position but has not been afraid to ask tough questions.

I wish Westcott was around when former Congressman John Sweeney delivered a big federal check for a fence around the airport years ago. It was our cut of the Homeland Security money to guard the airport against terrorism.

Now that was a waste of money.

In this case, the FAA recommended the runway at Warren County’s airport be extended for safety reasons.

It’s tough to argue against safety, but nobody seems to be saying the airport is unsafe, just that the improvements would improve conditions and attract larger private jets. How many, and how much that would benefit the local economy, are unclear.

It is an expensive fact of life that the federal government is rife with good, sound ideas that cost taxpayers a lot of money without much thought to return on investment. That seemed to be the point many were making Monday night.

The public comment period was eaten up by lengthy citizen speeches, rather than brief comments, as a variety of topics were addressed, such as the business model of the airport, the federal government’s own wasteful spending practices, the possibility of additional noise pollution for those living near the airport and the fact many busier airports have runways of comparable length.

Our own research here at the newspaper has showed that other counties with airports, such as Saratoga County, pay far less for their airport operations, but that was not brought up at the meeting.

Like many things funded by government, local airports are not modeled to make money. They are part of a greater coast-to-coast aviation infrastructure often portrayed as making a significant contribution to economic development, as big-time corporate executives whiz in and out of the region to plan major economic expansions that bring jobs to Warren County.

It was correctly pointed out that we have not seen much of that.

Ultimately, this issue seems to have captured the imagination of at least part of the public as another example of government wasting our tax dollars to subsidize a lifestyle for the rich.

Or it might be an example of what happens when too few tough questions are asked along the way.

The question is whether it is too late. It is the job of the supervisors to thoroughly research business decisions such as these so they can make informed decisions. Asking for a vote from the general public every time a spending plan is disputed is unreasonable.

Unfortunately, Monday’s meeting did little to illuminate whether the expansion is a good or bad idea. And when library officials insisted the meeting be cut short because the library was closing — as hard to believe as that is — it allowed county officials to wiggle off the hook while Westcott was still waiting to make his own case with a Power Point presentation.

At the meeting, committee chairman Dan Girard said a second meeting would be scheduled, but then announced later in the week no “official” committee meeting would be held.

Considering all the unfinished business Monday, that is unacceptable.

The people should always have the opportunity to be heard.

Girard and his committee have obviously forgotten that.