Usually when Mayor Joseph Solomon is invited to Green Airport it’s to be a part of an announcement that another airline has chosen to fly out of Rhode Island, opening new destinations and bringing more economic opportunities to the city and the state.
But while the mayor and members of the City Council tout Green as an economic engine at these events, when they get back to City Hall and face the realities of balancing a budget, the airport is viewed as an expense. Exactly how much Green costs the city is difficult to calculate. As it is state land, more than 1,000 acres in the middle of the city, the airport doesn’t pay taxes, yet city police and fire respond to Green. In addition, the city has lost the tax revenues of hundreds of homes and scores of businesses the state has acquired over decades to expand the airport.
Last month, the council approved a resolution calling on the airport to make a $900,000 payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) in addition to the $500,000 it is compensated for police and fire services. Citing Federal Aviation Administration regulations on the diversion of airport generated funds, Iftikhar Ahmad, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, said that would be illegal. Yet Ahmad is sympathetic to the financial problems faced by the city.
A spokesman for the FAA said Monday the federal act regulating the diversion of funds allows for payments to municipalities to cover airport related expenses. He said the Green Airport PILOT was put in place in 1988.
According to RIAC calculations, the city actually receives more than $5 million annually from the airport, a number Solomon questions but isn’t arguing at this time. In addition to the $500,000 payment to offset public safety services, Ahmad lists taxes paid by the Red Beam Garage that is part of the airport campus but privately owned, revenues generated by car rental and hotel taxes and taxes paid by businesses operating from the airport.
As separated as the city and the airport are over the numbers, Solomon and Ahmad were all smiles at Thursday’s RIAC board meeting. The board approved a resolution calling on the FAA to ease restrictions so that it could increase payments in lieu of taxes to the city.
Solomon reinforced the need for additional airport funding. He said over the past two years, Warwick firefighters and rescue responded to 700 calls at the airport. The city is working on the number of police response to Green over the same time period.
“Tax rolls have decreased significantly, we do need relief to the taxpayers,” he told the board.
Solomon said he would join RIAC in working with the state Congressional delegation to push for revisions in the regulations allowing for a PILOT. RIAC board member Michael Traficante suggested the city also petition the General Assembly for an airport PILOT. Warwick does receive payment in lieu of taxes for the Community College of Rhode Island, but not for the airport.
Solomon said he doesn’t care whether the money comes from the airport or the state as long as the city got it. He pointed out that as an international airport, Green is a gateway to the world, and city police play a role in providing security. He urged that the city and airport work together for the benefit of Warwick and the state.
Reached after the unanimous board vote, Solomon reiterated, “We need assistance.”
“It’s a very positive action by the board. It’s how willing [RIAC is] to assist and address the needs of the taxpayer,” he said.
The FAA spokesman said other regional airports with PILOTs include Manchester in New Hampshire and Portland, Maine. He said for Green to see an increase in PILOT the act establishing the program would require congressional action.