Commissioners ready to make improvements at airport; approve date for scanning of documents by Lone

BY ROBERT MORALES

County commissioners on Monday went through a lengthy agenda, some of which included major improvements at the airport, discussing whether to implement a written reprimand policy and allowing Lone Star Title to begin scanning records from the clerk’s office.

John Hamilton from Parkhill, Smith and Cooper (PSC), an engineering/architectural firm from Lubbock, gave commissioners a presentation on the current state of affairs at Culberson County Airport. He said the county had three options: (1) do nothing; (2) adopt a master plan for the airport that would include a private-public partnership; and (3) include Blue Origin as a major partner for much-needed improvements at the airport.

Mr. Hamilton explained that his firm had the experience with large international airports as well as small general aviation airports, such as Culberson County Airport. According to a PSC brochure, the firm has handled improvements at McMahon-Winkle Airport in Big Spring, Hereford Municipal Airport, Preston Smith International Airport in Lubbock, Midland International Airport and Moore County Airport in Dumas.

Commissioners recently approved funding to repair the approach lights and runway lights that were vandalized. Mr. Hamilton stressed that it was critical that commissioners took the action to repair the lights because it was a safety issue as well as a liability issue.

“We have all kinds of planes coming in,” said Larry Simpson, owner of West Texas Aviation. “The issues we’re talking about here relate to all the aircraft that lands here. The bigger the airplane, the more critical the issue.”

Mr. Simpson added that a runway extension would be “justified” in the future because of “what Blue Origin wants to do.” It remains unclear when Blue Origin would begin to use a regional jet to land at the airport.

“The first thing we need is an AWOS and to fix the runway lights,” said Mr. Simpson. The runway lights are a definite liability. AWOS stands for Automated Weather Observation System. According to a letter written to County Judge Carlos Urias from NETJETS on April 1, 2013, an AWOS system is necessary “to obtain the local altimeter setting to conduct an instrument approach. Not receiving this information causes the procedure to be ‘not authorized.’” 

According to Mr. Simpson, an AWOS would cost about $125,000. However, TxDOT would pay approximately 75-percent of that cost, said Mr. Simpson. He said that Culberson County Airport is the only airport in West Texas that does not have AWOS.

In addition, the airport needs a PLASI system – a visual vertical guidance unit that helps pilots locate the airport at night. PLASI assures obstacle clearance and aids the pilot in making a smooth approach to the runway. Mr. Urias said this system costs about $50,000.

Mr. Hamilton suggested that based upon the recommendations of users of the airport that commissioners request a modification to the scope of the upcoming TxDOT project “a very minimum because nobody knows your needs like you do.”

As for bringing in Blue Origin into the equation of a private-public partnership, Mr. Simpson said that it remains a mystery as to what plans, if any, the company has in Culberson County.  “There’s a lot that has been said about Blue Origin, and we don’t know their plans for the future.”

For example, said Mr. Simpson, Dan Hughes uses the airport on a regular basis. Mr. Hughes uses two KingAir aircraft and a Challenger 300, according to Mr. Simpson. Also, Jerry Kozas, a rancher, uses the airport on a monthly basis. Bob McNair, owner of the Houston Texans, also owns a ranch in the area, and he uses the Culberson County Airport as well, said Mr. Simpson. In comparison, Blue Origin personnel use the airport about once a quarter.

The airport improvement agenda item did not require a vote because it was a discussion-only topic; however, commissioners were unanimous in their support for the improvements, by first requesting that TxDOT allow a modification of additional improvements that would be funded in large part by TxDOT.

In other action, County Auditor Mark Cabezuela brought two items before the court. The first item was for commissioners to act on changing policy regarding per diem allowances to comply with IRS rules. The item was approved.

The second item involved a written reprimand policy that commissioners accepted in 2009. Mr. Cabezuela brought the issue before the court because he said it “wasn’t fair” that some employees would still be eligible to receive a raise, even after exhibiting poor judgment or poor behavior.

“I’m not talking it (reprimand policy) down,” said County Attorney Steve Mitchell. “I’m just trying to understand how it would work. The general theme sounds fairly good. I have a bit of an issue with the due process because I can say I saw somebody fueling a personal vehicle using the county credit card. Maybe she did, and maybe she didn’t.  There’s more involved in the allegation. I worry about that end of the deal.”

Commissioners tabled the item for a later date.

As was reported in the Advocate last week, Lone Star Title had requested to open an office in Van Horn, and the company would pay for all costs associated with scanning the clerk’s records. County Clerk Linda McDonald apologized for some of the comments she made at the last commissioner’s court meeting, and she said that she was ready to accommodate John Martin and his staff from Lone Star Title. 

“I have a great relationship with the two title companies I work with, and I am positive that I will have the same relationship with Mr. Martin,” said Ms. McDonald. Scanning of the clerk’s records is due to begin shortly after the March 4 primary.

Commissioners also took reviewed, acted or discussed:
•Approved a burn ban effective immediately
•Approved closing county offices for the March 4 primary
•Approved paying election workers an additional $2 for the March 4 primary
•Approved the purchase of at least two vehicles for the Sheriff’s office that would be paid  for from the Special Law Enforcement Fund
•Sheriff Oscar Carrillo explained that the jail had been housing Pecos County inmates at the rate of $45 per inmate per day. The program has netted the department approximately $30,000 and Mr. Carrillo was asking the court to approve an increase in the food expense that has increased commensurate to the increase in inmates.