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Excessive spending at small local airports has some concerned

CREATED Feb 10, 2014 - UPDATED: Feb 10, 2014

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PALMYRA -  Every time you fly on a plane, you pay a tax.  That money has been piling up in a special fund for years.  Across Wisconsin, small airports are spending millions of dollars from that fund.  In some cases -- just because they can.

To hear Steve Sorge describe it -- the one-runway, municipal airport in Palmyra is a little slice of heaven.

"It's just a perfect world," he exclaims.

The Palmyra Airport is home for his Youth Flying Club:  88 Charlie.  They rebuild donated planes, which then take to the sky from a runway not made of pavement, but from grass.  Year by year, and dollar by dollar, Steve Sorge has watched his little airport change.  He calls it, "An unwarranted spend of money for projects that aren't needed."

In the past decade, the Palmyra Airport has spent nearly a million dollars, and they have big plans to spend even more.

"Who on earth suggests to put in a instrument landing light, an airport beacon and a tower, at an airport like this," Sorge laments.  

One person we spoke to who lives in Palmyra says, "Are we getting a benefit for what we are paying for?  In my opinion, no."

That's a common sentiment around Palmyra.  As the folks who live there wonder why all that money is being poured into a little place like the Palmyra Airport.

A pilot who lives in town adds, "Their best shot at staying open is to be a cost neutral endeavor, and right now they are not cost neutral."

So where are small towns like Palmyra getting all this money?  From you--every time you fly.  Taxes on airline tickets and fuel, collected by the FAA -- land in what's called the 'Airport and Airway Trust Fund.'  In 2012 -- that fund held $10.3 billion.  It's money available to pretty much any small airport in the country.  The requirement -- come up with a way to spend it. 

For example, Hartford Municipal Airport is projected to get almost $10 million over the next 5 years.  Why?  To move their runway--a runway that will still be too short for jet traffic.

Another example-- the Capitol Drive Airport in Brookfield.  Over the next 5 years, almost $2 million tax dollars are slated to be spent there.  That money was allocated to the Capitol Drive Airport by the State Bureau of Aeronautics.  It's not even money the airport asked for.

Palmyra Town Chairman Larry Kau says the process to get the money is simple-- just apply for it.  The way he describes it, it's free money, just sitting out there, waiting for small airports to think up ways to spend it.  To him, spending it makes perfect sense.  "It's good for the economy, and its good for the airport, and it's money that would have went to a different airport."

David Dunn generally likes what has been done at the Palmyra Airport.  He's also a member of the flying club there, and benefits from many of the upgrades.  He explains, "If you don't spend it, someone else is going to spend it."

He defends the spending because it helps keep little airports alive, but deep down, he admits, "It's always easier to spend when it's someone else's money."

When you add it all up -- the numbers get big.  Over the last four years -- 80 Wisconsin airports shared in $76,213,930 of that haul.

"It smells like someone that wants to spend money because money is there to be spent," Sorge says.

He fears that kind of big spending on small airports -- could eventually backfire.  With all those improvements needing maintenance and repairs, where will the money come from?  Small communities like Palmyra may decide their once perfect little airports are a nuisance.

"One of the most fatal things that can happen to an airport, is to have the surrounding community say they don't want it anymore," Sorge adds.

The State Bureau of Aeronautics plays a big role in handing out this money.  While the BOA did provide us with some figures for our report, a spokesperson refused to sit down for an interview about how it spends public dollars.