Chattanooga airport ‘stonewalling’ questions about buying out private business

TRANSPARENCY?: Why won't members of the Chattanooga Airport Authority discuss a possible deal that would cost millions of taxpayer dollars?

By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog

CHATTANOOGA — A Chattanooga City Council member complains the city’s airport authority is showing no transparency in what he believes is its attempt to use millions of taxpayer dollars to drive a private company out of business.

“They aren’t answering questions. They’re just stonewalling everybody,” said council member Larry Grohn. “It’s actually quite disturbing.”

TRANSPARENCY?: Why won’t members of the Chattanooga Airport Authority discuss a possible deal that would cost millions of taxpayer dollars?

Thus far, Tennessee Watchdog’s own experiences with members of the airport authority, including those that occurred Thursday, seem to validate Grohn’s concerns.

Tennessee Watchdog, for instance, reached airport authority member Mike Mallen Thursday. As previously reported, Mallen is said to have vigorously pushed the authority to use taxpayer money to compete against TAC Air, a private fixed base operator, four years ago.

Mallen’s response to Tennessee Watchdog was extremely brief.

“I just don’t have any conversation that I could possibly imagine I want to have with someone like you. Have a nice day,” Mallen said before immediately hanging up.

Tennessee Watchdog then tried to arrange an interview with airport president and CEO Terry Hart. An airport employee, however, directed all media inquiries to Albert Waterhouse, the airport’s official spokesman.

Waterhouse, however, hasn’t responded to six voicemail messages that Tennessee Watchdog left with him and his colleague Natalie Strickland over the past week.

Larry Grohn

As previously reported, in 2010, the airport authority used $4 million in state grant funding from the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division to compete against TAC Air. As a fixed base of operations, TAC Air provides fuel and other services. Airport authority officials have admitted the taxpayer-subsidized FBO, under the management of Wilson Air, has lost taxpayer money.

As the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported last week, the airport authority is in talks with TAC Air to acquire the company’s hangar and office space for its own uses.

The agreement, according to the newspaper, is pending, and neither side had finalized a deal as of late last week.

The authority held a special meeting Wednesday and, according to the paper, “agreed to an initial resolution for the issuance of up to $10 million in revenue bonds, which is expected to help finance the purchase of privately held TAC Air’s extensive hangar and office space.”

The authority is reportedly expected to meet Friday to finalize the deal, the paper reported.

Grohn couldn’t confirm the reported details, but he said he knows that TAC Air employees are out of a job as of Friday.

TAC Air spokesman Dave Edwards has not responded to requests for comment.

“I have a problem with an authority using taxpayer money to establish their own business,” Grohn said. “There’s a lot of outcry around the city from people saying ‘Just tell us what you are doing and be open and honest about it.’”

Grohn said he alerted the local media to last week’s airport authority meeting when no one else would.

“When the media showed up, the authority responded by going into a closed session and not letting the media in,” Grohn said.

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org. or follow him and submit story ideas on his official Facebook page.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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