PITTSTON TWP. – Differences between Luzerne and Lackawanna county officials over accounting practices and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport's ability to pay its retirement payments for employees led to tense discussions at Tuesday's monthly meeting of the Bi-County Board of Directors.
The schism led to a failed vote on the airport's 2013 budget, meaning the airport will continue operating under the 2012 version, which wasn't passed until the end of March last year. It also marks the second time in the past four years that the airport was operating without an adopted budget.
The point of contention was the annual retirement contribution, or ARC.
After noting that the 2012 airport budget projected a $150,000 loss but wound up with a $225,000 surplus, Luzerne County Manager Robert Lawton noted the airport was healthy enough to record a surplus that exceeded the approximately $215,000 total ARC payment due to the counties in 2013. Luzerne's retirement fund would be owed $113,000 of that; Lackawanna's fund would be owed $102,000.
He said he could not vote for a budget that did not include an ARC payment, something that hasn't been made by the airport in at least three years.
Board Chairman Corey D. O'Brien, a Lackawanna County commissioner, said the time has not come for the airport to expend so much money.
Instead, as he has argued multiple times over the years, he believes the funds would be better used to attract airlines to the airport and utilize those funds in strategic ways.
O'Brien said that when the airport was first opened in the 1960s, the two counties fully supported the airport's budget obligations and over time more was taken off the counties' plates and passed to the airport. Lawton said the time has come for that last county obligation to follow suit.
I don't think the airport's there yet, O'Brien replied, but they're moving in the right direction.
O'Brien said, If we starve this airport, it will die and this will be the start of the end for this place.
Luzerne County Councilman Rick Williams also voted against the budget, largely due to accounting practices with which he disagrees.
Tim McGinley, the chairman of the Luzerne County Council and the third member of the county's delegation to the airport board, also said the lack of a solution to the ongoing ARC dispute left him unable to support the budget.
All three Lackawanna County designees to the board – county commissioners Jim Wansacz, Patrick O'Malley and O'Brien – voted for the $5.1 million budget.
Without a budget in place, the 2012 financial plan will remain in effect. And all 30 non-administrative union employees will get a contractually obligated raise of between 1 and 3 percent.
The airport Bi-County Board of Directors meets again at 10:30 a.m. Jan. 31 in the airport's administration conference room.