Hilton Head Island Airport officials made their case Tuesday to a skeptical advisory committee for town bed-tax money to help pay for its operations.
Beaufort County, which owns and operates the airport, is asking for $115,237 from the town to shore up a shortfall of more than $300,000 to provide police and fire protection at the airport.
By law, the money generated from a tax on overnight lodging must be used to support tourism on the island.
Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee members questioned the airport's finances during the first of two all-day hearings to screen applicants seeking town grants for next year.
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I "have difficulty understanding why bed-tax money should be used for fire and police services when it appears the airport seems to be operating at a nice profit," committee member John Diamond said, referring to audited reports that show the airport increased in value during the past three fiscal years.
County airports director Paul Andres argued that most of the increase in value was because of airport improvements paid for mostly with federal tax dollars, not through the airport's operations fund.
"It changes the bottom line, but it doesn't change the fact that we're losing money," Andres said after the hearing.
The airport collected more than $400,000 from the Transportation Security Administration and US Airways but spent more than $700,000 for three sheriff's deputies and seven firefighters for the fiscal year that ended June 30. The airport had been able to recover most of those costs until Delta Air Lines left last fall, Andres said. The TSA also has indicated it might not give the airport as much money in the future because of federal budget constraints, he said.
Andres said the accounting paints too rosy a picture -- maintenance and needed items have been deferred to balance the budget, which has been reduced to "bare bones," he said. Further cuts would be "extremely difficult, if not impossible," he wrote in the airport's application.
Committee member Frank Soule argued that island residents already subsidize the airport through their county tax bills. The airport owes the county about $3 million, including payments on a loan for hangars built in 2007 and advances from the general fund for other projects, including a control tower built in 2004.
Other members questioned whether supporting county operations was an appropriate use of town tax dollars.
But given the airport is a key entry and departure point for visitors to the island, the law ought to allow some portion of the cost for firefighting and police services to come from the tax on tourists, said Hilton Head resident and county airports board member Joe Zimmerman.
In the end, there may not be enough money to go around. Finance director Susan Simmons estimates the town will have about $765,000 for new grants to disperse among 21 groups asking for a combined $1.4 million.
The committee resumes hearings at 9 a.m. Thursday before making a recommendation to Town Council for final consideration.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead