Airport noise and operations were conversation points once more during the city council’s regular meeting Monday, Feb. 3. After some discussion, it appears it is back to the drawing board with language for a Tri-Town Memorandum of Understanding on airport operations and noise mitigation.
Since 2018, South Burlington has collected a local option tax on aviation jet fuel sales for the purpose of airport related measures. That fund is anticipated to bring in $70-80K, annually. The revenues can only be used for airport related efforts, according to City Manager Kevin Dorn. Currently, with a little over a year’s worth of collection, the fund has $97,975.83.
“Given that the airport is owned by the city of Burlington, the externalities that we have to deal with are noise, traffic, things of that nature,” Dorn told the council. “Since there is an active noise abatement program associated with the NCP [noise compatibility program], one potential area for you to invest those funds on an annual basis is in noise-related investments in homes and potentially in the [Chamberlin] school.”
Council Chair Helen Riehle told her fellow councilors she would like to discuss the draft Tri-Town Memorandum of Understanding and the potential to indicate “at least a willingness on our part to consider using this money because it has to be for airport-related activities.”
The memorandum is a document between South Burlington, Winooski and Burlington that concerns airport operations and noise mitigation. It’s been in the works for over a year-and-a-half, with members of the three municipalities’ governments convening to hash out language around expectations of what each town will do to mitigate noise, particularly with respect to sound changes under the new F-35 fighter jets.
A November version of the memorandum asked South Burlington and Winooski to cover the 10% local match on Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) noise mitigation measures but left the Burlington largely off the hook. The latest iteration discussed by councilors on Feb. 3 shows a change of wording that may provide some hope of Burlington aid. A new “shall” clause says the Queen City will “explore” using airport revenues to meet the local match requirement if the joint efforts to pursue state and federal funding for the local match do not meet the full necessary dollar amount.
But some councilors were not sure that “explore” was a strong enough term.
Councilor Meaghan Emery pointed out how Burlington’s “O” clause from the memorandum said it would “explore” using airport revenues to help with the match, while South Burlington’s “I” clause said the city would “commit” to investing the jet fuel sale tax revenues to noise abatement programs.
“I would like to see language very much equal to what the language for South Burlington is, which is that they ‘commit’ to using airport revenues to meet the local match requirement,” Emery said, adding, “at least a portion of those revenues.”
But Riehle said the airport does not have discretion over all of its revenues. Some proceeds come from additional dollars applied to passenger tickets. Investments made with that money must be approved by the airlines, with whom the airport has an agreement.
“It’s not like they just have money that comes in and they decide, ‘Oh we want to have new furniture,’” Riehle said. “It’s not ... revenue that they have a huge amount of discretion over.”
Dorn asked Riehle to explain why the airport had covered the local match on mitigation measures carried out several years ago. Councilor Thomas Chittenden said he recalled a memo from Nic Longo, the airport’s deputy director of aviation administration, stating the airport made that match because the airport owned the land that was to be mitigated. This time around, the airport would not purchase the homes that would be mitigated and so it could not pay the match.
“I counter that argument by saying it’s a Burlington asset, so it’s a Burlington obligation to pay for those programs,” Chittenden said.
“I appreciate that you want the airport to actually commit, but at least it says they’ll explore airport revenues to meet the local match requirement,” Riehle replied. “They weren’t willing to do that originally.”
The discussion continued with talk about wording on exploring versus committing to using the local option tax. Councilors contemplated wording to the effect of committing “some portion” of the tax to noise abatement in the 65 dbl and other areas. Dorn said he would draft language and email it to councilors.
“There might be things that come up that we would like to use those [local option tax] funds for that are even more pressing for our residents,” Emery said. “I would like to have a little bit of leeway, just like Burlington and Winooski have, in order to determine how best to use those funds.”
Chittenden said he “echoed” that statement.
Also discussed was the possibility of using funds to purchase noise monitoring equipment. Chittenden had earlier inquired if the city could use funds to pay for city staff time spent on airport issues.
“This city spends an inordinate amount of time ... of staff hours on managing issues related to the airport,” he said. “What I would encourage us to consider is to use this money to just pay for the time that we spend working on dealing with airport issues in a similar fashion to how Burlington does it.”
Riehle said she understood where Chittenden was coming from but did not believe the FAA would approve that as an airport-related expenditure.
The councilors left the matter with Dorn to craft new wording around committing a portion of the tax to noise mitigation.