Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Columbia Gorge Regional Airport (KDLS) moves ahead with Life Flight

A $1.25 million flex building will be built at the newly developed business park at the Columbia Gorge Regional Airport in Dallesport says County Commissioner Dave Sauter. How it will be funded is still to be decided.

Whatever contracts are signed will no doubt come under close scrutiny of Dallesport resident Raymond Clough. Clough has been doggedly following the actions of the airport managers and the airport owners (the city of The Dalles and Klickitat County) for several years. Sauter says it "borders on harassment."

Clough has become an expert in ferreting out documents through the internet and finding public records that most people would have a hard time finding. In some cases he has used public records requests and has even gone so far as to file a request for a stop work order during the airport's runway improvement project in 2012. He has also become well versed in a myriad of laws and regulations, mostly applying to environmental issues. He has exposed issues ranging from improperly completed forms to false statements he believes are illegal. Clough does all this at his own expense because he says he believes the airport and its owners need to follow laws and regulations, just like everyone else.

Clough says he was not against the airport improving their runways and he is not against the business park. However, in his most recent action, Clough wrote to the Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB) in an attempt to derail the airport's efforts to gain a $1 million grant for construction of the flex building. Clough learned that the original tenant for the planned flex building, American Aerospace Engineering (AAE), was no longer a viable tenant. Clough found through airport board minutes that AAE was behind on rent of another building at the airport and had actually moved away from Dallesport and relocated in White Salmon.

That information was shared with CERB by Sauter and Denny Newell, Economic Development Specialist with Klickitat County, in March. The pair proposed Life Flight as an alternate tenant. CERB was concerned over how that change affected the original score that rated the project high on their list. On one hand there was AAE, a business that was hoping to grow to 80 manufacturing jobs over a five-year period. On the other was an established, known quantity with Life Flight bringing a $10 million investment, with limited job growth potential, said to be six new jobs and 16 retained positions. CERB chose to delay their decision until they could rescore the proposal, and a May 15 meeting was set.

Clough wrote to CERB prior to the May meeting, questioning claims that Life Flight was going to invest $10 million, mainly by stationing two aircraft at the facility. In fact, the aircraft were already purchased and are the ones currently in use at Dallesport. Clough researched the cost of a fixed wing Pilatus PC-12 at $3.3 million and the cost of an Agusta Westland AW119Kx helicopter at $2 million, much short of the actual $10 million target. Clough said he doubted another $5 million could be made up in other supplies. Clough also questioned the claim that Life Flight was a not-for-profit medical transport group. He said Life Flight is a for-profit LLC.

There were other questions raised by Clough, unrelated to Life Flight. He had a list of state and federal laws that he claimed the airport had violated, some related to past actions and some related to current work on the business park. Many of his concerns relate to improper permits, storm water runoff, and damage to a wetland.

Sauter said he first heard about Clough's letter at the CERB meeting in May. According to Sauter, it was mentioned briefly by the board but not discussed, and he does not believe it was a factor in CERB's decision to withdraw the grant.

In a letter from CERB to Newell, two factors were listed in their decision. The first was the disparity in jobs-22 versus the original expectation of 80. Secondly, CERB stated: "Because the project with the proposed alternate tenant did not include private capital project investment as defined in the Economic Development Grant requirements, this project would not have passed threshold review under the original...guidelines."

CERB was distributing the grant on behalf of another entity whose guidelines treated the aircraft as an operational expense, not capital investment.

However, CERB offered a different package of their own funds. Under their own guidelines the aircraft would qualify as capital investment. Their offer was for a loan of $850,000 at 3 percent interest over 20 years plus a grant of $150,000. Sauter says the fact they offered their own funds suggests they discounted the charges made by Clough that the airport was in violation of state and federal law.

Airport manager Rolf Anderson Leirvik echoes that opinion. "I do not believe CERB would offer a long-term loan along with a grant for the airport if there were any concerns that any laws or regulations have been violated," said Leirvik. In a memo penned by Leirvik on May 27 in response to the charges made by Clough, he also disputed the claims Clough made about Life Flight, and he took issue with the charges that the airport has violated various laws and regulations.

Leirvik's memo also referred to an earlier claim by Clough that the airport deceived Oregon Department of Transportation in 2010 by failing to mention that the airport was jointly owned by Klickitat County in their application for runway improvement funds. Leirvik said the allegations were reviewed by the Oregon State Attorney General's office and that no problems were found. He also pointed to another charge by Clough that led to a work stoppage order in 2012. Leirvik said the Department of Ecology found the airport to be in compliance with permits and had not caused illegal discharge into waters of the state. The order was lifted, against Clough's objections.

Sauter says every time a complaint has been filed during the runway project and development of the business park, agencies have had to investigate. That includes investigation by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, Washington Department of Ecology, the FAA, Washington DOT, and Oregon DOT and aviation. He points out that it costs the agencies money to investigate, and it costs the airport in time to deal with the complaints. In each case, says Sauter, "We got a clean bill of health."

As for Life Flight, the company's Senior Director of Strategic Planning and Technology, Justin Dillingham told The Sentinel that the status of the company can be confusing. "You don't designate not-for profit or for-profit as a business. If the business [Life Flight Network] makes money, it goes to the owners, who in this case do have non-profit status." Those owners are Oregon Health and Science University, Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, Legacy Emanuel Health Center, and Providence Health and Services.

Dillingham also wondered about the figures that were quoted for the aircraft in use at Dallesport. Dillingham said that the aircraft had to be retrofitted for their medical ambulance purpose, and each aircraft cost about $4.5 million.

Those clarifications might satisfy Clough, but he still has concerns. Most of the issues he has raised were swept aside with the completion of the runway project. However, he still insists that proper delineation of the currently threatened or damaged wetland has never been made. He also believes the construction wastewater permit is the wrong permit. Leirvik says he has invited Clough to visit the airport and tour the work they are doing, but Clough has never accepted the offer.

As for the future of the flex building, Sauter said they are weighing their options. The loan wasn't something they were very interested in, for obvious reasons. They have a pending application through the Economic Development Authority for a $600,000 grant and a $600,000 loan. Part of the matching requirement would be covered by the expenditures already made at the site, such as installation of roads and utilities.

Sauter says the building needs to be built before winter to accommodate Life Flight.

Life Flight is expected to take up 30 to 40 percent of the space in the new building. Dillingham says they moved in a trailer for crew quarters in their present location at the airport. They currently lack housing and maintenance facilities to move aircraft indoors during inclement weather. It is a situation that had them considering their options, including moving to another location.

One thing that isn't disputed is that Life Flight is a valuable asset to the area. One way or another, Sauter says the county is committed to build the building. It is important to ensure Life Flight will continue to operate at Dallesport.


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