I was looking for some specifics on the non-binding referendum vote on the airport relocation, and I found it. The vote was placed on the ballot for the Democratic Presidential Primary on March 9th, 2004.
Randy Curtis, the Executive Director of the Panama City – Bay County Airport and Industrial District was gracious enough to provide the details:
The question on the ballot was as follows:
TITLE: Non-binding referendum question on the Bay County citizenry’s desire to relocate the existing Airport. Do you favor future relocation of the Panama City Bay County International Airport at no cost to the Bay County taxpayer?
The statement that I hear quoted most often regarding this vote is that “an overwhelming majority of Bay County voters voted against airport relocation”. The results of the vote taking into consideration the total number of registered voters in Bay County was as follows:
Yes 9,500 10.556%
No 11,051 12.280%
Over Vote 2 0.002 %
Under Vote 79 0.088%
Did not vote 69,360 77.074%
Total registered voters 89,992 100.000%
It is obvious that the majority of registered voters decided for whatever reason not to vote. I have several concerns regarding this vote. First, the FAA had not completed nor released the results of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The EIS was an in-depth analysis of the airport relocation project that was conducted independently by the FAA. In the EIS, numerous alternatives including expansion of the existing airport site, joint use with Tyndall AFB, relocation to various sites in and around Bay County, and a “do nothing” alternative, were evaluated in great detail. One could question whether or not the voters had adequate information to make an informed decision since the EIS and other critical studies had not been completed when the election was held.
Another comment regarding the vote is that it was not fully representative of those that use and pay for the Airport. Two-thirds of the passengers that use the current Airport are not Bay County citizens. They are either visitors that are traveling to this area or citizens of counties outside of Bay County. This fact is also the basis for my comment that the majority of those that pay for the airport were not represented. The Airport District does not receive any monies directly or indirectly from local taxes to pay for the operation and development of the airport. The funds that do pay for the airport come from aviation user fees collected by the state and federal governments and revenues generated directly by the Airport Authority. The federal and state governments collect various user fees from passenger ticket sales, aviation fuel taxes, car rental surcharges, and other aviation services. These monies are placed in trust funds and are distributed to airports in the form of grants to be used primarily for aviation infrastructure development. The Airport Authority receives revenue from airport tenants such as airlines, fixed base operators, rental car agencies, parking, concessions (gift shop, restaurant, lounge, advertising, etc.),and other businesses that operate at the airport. The basic premises is that these companies pay for the right to conduct business at the airport and we in turn provide the aviation facilities that allow them to operate.
One might argue that the airport is indirectly subsidized by local tax payers that provide municipal services. However, in this regard the airport authority has its own police and fire departments funded directly by the authority. We pay for utilities (water, sewer, trash, natural gas, electricity) the same as any other business. The bottom line is that the airport is funded by the users of the airport who pay the user fees to the state and federal government and use the services of the businesses that operate at the airport. The majority of those that use and pay for the airport did not have an opportunity to vote since they are not Bay County citizens.
In regard to public input as to whether or not the airport should be relocated, the Airport Board took into consideration many factors. Certainly the non-binding referendum was taken into consideration; however it must be placed in proper context as noted above. The Board also took into consideration public input that was provided at more than 125 public hearings, workshops, and other public meeting that were held over the past 10 years. The Board took into consideration dozens of resolutions and letters of support for the project received from area municipalities, elected officials, chambers, tourist development councils, economic development organizations and other groups. Numerous permitting and regulatory agencies (FAA, US Army Corps of Engineers, FDOT, FDEP, Florida Department of Community Affairs, Bay County and many others) conducted in-depth analysis of the project. Likewise, their input was an important consideration as the Board decided whether or not to move forward with this project.
Thank you Randy, I know this answered some questions that I had. I hope that it will help educate the public as well.