Fly-in a bright spot for Foothills Regional Airport

Apr. 27, 2013 @ 01:15 AM

Foothills Regional Airport hosts its annual regional social gathering today and is expecting pilots from airports from across neighboring states, one of the latest bright spots of activity at a pastoral airport still under the cloud of a federal investigation.

The airport's regional fly-in, scheduled to run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., comes just as the airport expects next week to open a plane hangar, designed to store up to eight aircraft, that the authority has worked to build for the past two years.

For flight instructor Susan VanFleet Huggins, the plans represent an opportunity to cast new light on the airport.

“When something has been devastating to your passion,” she said, “you don’t have the energy to do what you want to do.”

But now, she said of a change in tone among employees in recent months, “we’re getting it back.”

Plans for the fly-in are nothing new for the airport, which schedules the gathering every spring. But its anticipation has brought a sense of relief particularly to the eight members of the Foothills Airport Authority. And at a meeting on Wednesday, they sought to reiterate their confidence in audit reports they are preparing to submit to the state for the first time in two years since the airport came under intense scrutiny by the FBI.

“It always helps to hear you have money in the bank,” authority member Louis Vinay said after the meeting, referring to the scandal involving two authority members whose embezzlement of tens of thousands of dollars left the airport without sufficient funds to pay for jet fuel and other expenses. Vinay, who also serves as city attorney for Morganton, was appointed to the board last summer. 

The FBI descended in June on the airport, whose authority leaders failed to submit audit reports and made last-minute requests for thousands of dollars from Burke and Caldwell counties and the cities of Morganton and Lenoir, all of which help finance the airport.

After raising suspicions among its financial backers in the years ahead of the raid, the authority has worked to shift from a structure of limited oversight -- in which responsibilities like bookkeeping sometimes overlapped with other committments -- to policies requiring “segregation of duty,” separation responsibility for such things as tracking bills and invoices and other transactions, and an overhaul of what once were murky financial reports, said Danny Gilbert, Lenoir's finance director and assistant city manager, who was appointed to the airport board last summer. 

The authority this year also has enjoyed the added stability of a budget of about $105,000, an amount members say is a significant increase in funds from last year.

And its efforts to increase transparency likely will come to the foreground in June, Gilbert said, when the authority expects to submit audit reports for the past two fiscal years to the N.C. Local Government Commission, a part of the state treasurer’s office.

Members say the added financial stability of the authority also could increase the likelihood of drawing future investments to the rural airport, which owns some 1,200 acres, about 800 of which are zoned for commercial use. Such prospects are leading the authority to consider seeking an agreement, likely with Lenoir, to invest $3 million to $4 million in a sewer system at the airport, Gilbert said.

Although the airport remains under investigation, Bruce Robins, chairman of the authority, said he and others “expect the final shoe to drop” sometime in the coming months on the sentencing of Alex Nelson, the former airport manager, and Brad Adkins, the former operations manager, both of whom pleaded guilty to charges of public corruption conspiracy and embezzlement in federal court in September. Nelson, whom the federal government said funneled more than $130,000 to pay for some 100,000 gallons of jet fuel and other personal expenses, also pleaded guilty to money laundering.