SOUTH PARIS, Maine — In wrapping up the 2018 Oxford County budget Tuesday, county commissioners included a $3,000 donation to the Eastern Slope Regional Airport in Fryeburg, Maine, despite some stated concerns about the transparency of the airport's leadership.
County Administrator Scott Cole confirmed Wednesday that the commissioners (Chairman Timothy Turner of Buckfield, Steven Merrill of Norway and David Duguay of Byron) put the money in the county's 2018 budget.
However, the disbursement won't occur until at least September or October.
Town Manager Sharon Jackson explained in an email to the Sun that for cash-flow reasons, Oxford County always makes its donation in the fall.
Cole added that the commissioners will be under no obligation to actually make the donation and that between now and then, they will "keep an eye" on what's going on at the airport.
The entire county budget is about $7.8 million.
Some residents, including Eastern Slope Airport Authority member Steve Bender of Lovell, have suggested that giving the airport money might not be a good idea.
Bender made headlines in October just before a scheduled town vote on whether to let Fryeburg officials sell excess airport land to Poland Spring for a bottling plant.
Bender had charged that building a plant there could create an aviation hazard. He also said the airport authority was not holding meetings in accordance with authority bylaws.
The proposed airport land sale failed at the polls by a wide margin.
The Eastern Slope executive committee consists of Chairman Don Thibodeau of Fryeburg, Vice Chairman Carl Thibodeau of Conway, Treasurer Gene Bergoffen of Fryeburg and Secretary Ed Bergeron of North Conway.
The committee is supposed to report to the 24-member authority board, with membership from Maine and New Hampshire towns, chamber of commerce, Oxford County, Maine, and Carroll County.
Now Bender alleges that the airport authority could be $100,000 in the red.
Bender told the Sun that the executive board took two years' payment of Federal Aviation Administration funding totaling $300,000, which should go toward airport repairs and put it toward matching two $250,000 grants for new hangar they want to build.
Maine and New Hampshire Departments of Transportation are each contributing $75,000 for the hangar.
The committee still needs a $1.4 million Rural Development loan.
Bender said the committee has spent $45,000 on consulting fees to a company called McFarland Johnson and he believes the committee is concerned about building the hangar now because it is the only way they can recoup that $45,000.
He added there is no money in the budget for snow removal and that the existing hangar needs repairs.
He also said that the authority may owe some money in consultant fees from the Poland Spring issue and the airport is one of the defendants in a lawsuit by Pike Industries.
Bender says the airport couldn't afford to pay back the loan even if it gets it.
"We are $30,000 in debt now; we're not showing the $45,000 to the consultants, we're not showing the $32,000 to the hangar repair, we're not showing snow removal, we're not showing the consultants and we are not showing the legal fees," said Bender. "There's not a chance in the world we (the authority) will be in the black by the end of 2018."
The committee disputes Bender's claims. The 2018 budget that Carl Thibodeau presented to Carroll County commissioners showed the airport would be in the black by $3,600 at the end of 2018.
He also told Conway selectmen (a board he sits on) at their Dec. 12 meeting: "Contrary to what you may or may not have read in the paper, if you read it, the airport is in good shape, the financial condition is that our bills are paid, and we are not in debt and we are not currently taken on any debt."
During the public comment portion of Tuesday's Oxford County commissioners' meeting, several county residents, including Bender, questioned the $3,000 request.
Bruce Taylor of Sweden said that town requires entities seeking funds to submit financial documentation, and he hoped Oxford County would ask the same of the airport.
“I’m very concerned about this item because of the lack of transparency and the apparent lack of administrative responsibility on the part of the leadership,” said Taylor, adding the county received a one-page letter from the authority. “I don’t think it’s very comprehensive to put it mildly.”
Bender said as an authority member, he would want the county to give the money but as a resident he’s apprehensive because he believes the airport is deep in the red.
Fryeburg Town Manager Sharon Jackson supported the donation 100 percent. She reviews the authority's audits every year. The town and authority share an auditor, Ron Smith.
"I would say they are not $100,000 in the red," said Jackson. "I don't agree with over half of the information that is out in the papers now. I would ask you not to consider not giving to the Fryeburg airport."
Bender said the executive committee declines to document some incurred expenses, and that makes the budget look like it's in better shape than it is.
"Democracy is supposed to be a system of checks and balances, and we don't have that going on at their airport right now," said Bender.
"The financial documents that should be before you today are not there because (Don Thibodeau) canceled the fourth-quarter (authority board of) directors' meeting, the meeting that was supposed to ratify the 2018 budget."
The committee also unilaterally raised rents on tenants at the airport, according to Bender. It also distributed its unapproved budget to Carroll County with a request for donations.
Lovell Selectman Steve Goldsmith told Oxford commissioners some members of the executive committee had asked Lovell selectmen to have Bender removed.
"I want to go on record and say I do support the airport, but I think maybe ... you ask for some more transparency," said Goldsmith.
Bender suggested that the commissioners attach strings to any donation they make to the airport.
"If that's a possibility, that might be a good compromise," said Bender.
Dan Davis of Porter told commissioners Carroll County commissioners voted not to make a contribution this year even though the airport gives Carroll County "significant benefit."
In a recent letter to the editor, Don Thibodeau said the airport has been given "significant grants and financial commitments from Maine and New Hampshire" to support their goal of building a new hangar.
At the Fryeburg selectmen's meeting last week, Jackson and selectmen's chair Janice Crawford said they think several of Bender's statements about their participation in airport meetings and about the financial health of the airport are inaccurate.
Jackson also said there could be dire consequences for the town of Fryeburg if the authority stops receiving funding because no one trusts them.
"If everyone stops funding the Eastern Slope Airport Authority, the town of Fryeburg is responsible for operating that airport," said Jackson saying the airport couldn't easily be shut down because Federal money was used in its creation.
Crawford paraphrased from a recent letter to the editor from Don Thibodeau.
"One of the most important things that was written in that letter was when you serve on a board you have a fiduciary responsibility, a duty of loyalty and a duty of care, that what goes on in that board stays in that board instead of going to the newspaper," said Crawford.