On September 18, the Business Council of Westchester (BCW) launched a campaign supporting a change in the governance of Westchester County Airport. Our white paper and web page thoroughly addresses the problems with this proposal.
The BCW’s campaign simply repeats Rob Astorino’s proposal that voters rejected in the 2017 election. Sadly, the BCW is basing their campaign on falsehoods. These arguments, from their website, are simply misleading and untrue:
FALSE. The county law, also known as the Terminal Use Regulations, only applies to airline operations. Only 10-15% of flights at the airport are covered by this law. The other 85-90% would be free to grow without bounds. Indeed, it is likely that BCW members Million Air and Skyqueen Enterprises, who stand to make large amounts of money from an increase in private jet traffic, are responsible for the BCW’s campaign. Million Air and the BCW have a close relationship, with the BCW promoting Million Air’s business and inviting CEO Roger Woolsey to be keynote speaker at BCW events.
MISLEADING. It is true that the proposals do not include an immediate increase in the number of gates at the airline terminal or an expansion of runways. However, there are no restrictions on increases in facilities for and traffic of the private aircraft that make up over 85% of traffic at Westchester County Airport. Changing the airport from being run in the public interest into a for-profit entity would create enormous pressure to maximize profits by increasing traffic and cutting costs on environmental protections. Some of those profits might be directed towards lobbying and campaigning for local politicians, who would have the power to change any agreements limiting the growth of the airport.
MISLEADING / FALSE. Ownership and oversight are meaningless if you cannot exercise control for 40 years. Existing environmental approvals are weak and inadequate. Growth of the airport under the Astorino administration led to Westchester County being fined for repeatedly polluting Blind Brook. Drinking water wells in Westchester and Greenwich were polluted with toxic chemicals despite environmental regulations.
The BCW does not claim that private operators would gather input from neighbors because the operator would not be required to do so. However, even if they did, any input does not have to be considered. For example, the Astorino administration wrote an airport master plan in secret for five years, hiding it from the public and from our elected representatives on the County Legislature. They scheduled the sole public hearing on the master plan in the middle of the summer and failed to promote it. When we promoted the public hearing in their absence, bringing hundreds of residents from across the county united in opposition, they threw out all the written public comments that were submitted. In the end, no substantive changes were made to their master plan despite unified opposition from the public.
It is critical that the airport remain fully in public control for this reason. When the Astorino administration failed to respond to residents’ concerns about its airport policy, they were held accountable at the ballot box. If the airport is leased to a private operator as the BCW wants, residents would be unable to hold that operator accountable for 40 years.
The airport consistently turns a profit – taxpayers do not pay for any improvements or maintenance. The county has $20 million in the airport’s savings account today to perform any maintenance or improvements that would benefit the public – without having to give up any control.
UNLIKELY. It is telling that the BCW’s claim about protecting the environment comes last and amounts to “trust us.”
Airports make money by moving airplanes. Reducing the environmental impact of those airplanes costs money. Are we really supposed to believe that a for profit company that exists to maximize returns for its shareholders would be willing to dent its profits by “improving environmental, noise, and traffic issues?”
We know the character of the businesses seeking to profit from our airport. Million Air misled our government when they won approval for a new facility at our airport. They claim that their facility will reduce flights even while they advertise it as a luxurious and convenient alternative to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey for access to NYC. They received a huge taxpayer subsidy to build their facility: $1 million in cash and $80 million in tax-exempt financing. They then turned around and sued the Town of Harrison for over $1 million and to exempt themselves from property taxes. They now benefit from the services of the Purchase Fire Department and contribute to noise, air, and water pollution in our community, all without paying any local property taxes.
Even if we don’t trust the operator, the terms of the lease supported by the BCW do not protect the public. For example, the private operator must maintain only $5 million per incident and $10 million total of pollution insurance. That isn’t enough to buy one bottle of water for each person served by the Kensico Reservoir, much less clean up a major, or even minor, spill. The New York Environmental Protection Bureau has estimated that a filtration plant for the Kensico “would entail capital expenditures of over $10 billion and annual operation and maintenance costs exceeding $100 million.” If our county is polluted by a private airport operator, the likely outcome is that the operator would simply declare bankruptcy and stick taxpayers with the cleanup bill.
We believe that most members of the BCW don’t care either way about selling off the airport. They should not be dragged into a lobbying campaign by bad actors like Million Air. It is important that they hear from the public that an organization claiming to represent them has taken a wrongheaded position and backed it up with falsehoods.
Here is the list of the BCW’s members. Call them and make sure they know what they are getting pulled into. Ask them to call on the BCW to end this misguided and misleading campaign.