PITTSTON TWP. — Construction crews working on the new interchange had more to show for their labor than did the airport board members Thursday who failed to pass a budget for this year.
The new $42 million interchange for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport is 20 percent complete and on track to meet its Nov. 11, 2015, deadline, said Paul Smith, construction manager for the PennDOT project, in his update to the airport board.
“We are on budget and on schedule,” Smith said. Motorists will see a change next week when one exit in each direction will be closed. There will only be an Exit 178 designation for the airport and Avoca.
However, the refusal by Luzerne County to contribute to the pension of airport workers who reside in the county brought the budget process to a standstill, much like southbound traffic on Interstate 81 while bridge beams were placed on the nearby Plane Street overpass in Avoca.
In this year’s proposed budget, the airport that is owned and operated by Luzerne and Lackawanna counties included $227,363 in subsidies from them to cover the annual required contribution payments to the pensions. The counties roughly split the total for the workers who are paid by the airport.
Lackawanna County commissioners Jim Wansacz, Corey O’Brien and Patrick O’Malley voted in favor of the spending plan, along with Rick Williams, a member of Luzerne County Council. Luzerne County Manager Robert Lawton and council member Steve Urban opposed it.
The budget containing $5.20 million in revenues and $5.19 million in expenses failed for lack of at least two “Yes” votes from each county, prompting a lengthy debate and concerns about the future of the airport.
“We are meeting the annual required contribution for county employees, but not for employees of the airport,” Lawton said.
The county did not include a subsidy for the airport, he added. Urban said it was unlikely the council would muster seven votes from its 11 members to reopen the county budget.
Lawton pointed out that without a budget, the airport continues to operate.
O’Brien argued Luzerne County’s contribution of approximately $120,000 is “immaterial” compared to the larger county budget. “It’s real material in this budget. It’s real money here. This is a shoestring operation,” he said referring to the airport.
He along Wansacz and Barry Centini, the airport director, were concerned that without Luzerne County’s contribution, the airport would have to tap its $1.5 million surplus and deplete the fund that’s set aside for capital projects, marketing to attract airlines and increase the number of flights.
Bad weather last month affected airport revenues and the number of people boarding planes. The airport reported a net loss of $66,259 last month and an 8.3 percent drop in enplanements.
In other action, the board approved the payment of bills and a new five-year lease for The Tipsy Turtle Airport Pub to renovate and move into an airport-owned building on Concorde Drive, Dupont, that has been the site of other restaurants.