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NCC receives interest on airport, won’t appeal tax case ruling

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The county executive confirmed that private operators have inquired about the future of the Wilmington Airport. | DBT FILE PHOTO

NEW CASTLE – With New Castle County poised to possibly put the long-term operational lease of the Wilmington Airport out for bid, County Executive Matt Meyer said there has been interest from new parties.

In an exclusive Thursday sit-down interview with Delaware Business Times, Meyer confirmed that private companies have reached out to the county regarding the future of the airport.

“We haven’t gotten into details because, ultimately, if we go that route, we’re going to run a bidding process,” he said.

The county’s current contract with the Delaware River and Bay Authority (DRBA), a transportation agency backed by Delaware and New Jersey, is set to expire in 2025. The county’s deadline to notify DRBA of non-renewal is June 30, however, and failing to provide notification would automatically renew the contract for another 30-year term.

A county task force asked to review the airport’s lease recommended that it not be renewed, and the county council backed that recommendation in a near-unanimous vote in May. The task force’s contracted consultant, Airport Business Solutions, reported that DRBA has failed to pay its $1 lease since 1995, when it began operating the airport. DRBA countered that the nominal rent was factored into its debt service payments on the property, which totaled $7 million when it took on the airport. The consultants also questioned a lack of communication and transparency between the county and DRBA, which the two-state agency has refuted.

Meyer said that he will submit the non-renewal notice and consider whether to enter into a bidding process at some point in the future or try to negotiate a new contract with DRBA, which has previously said it would not participate in a competitive bidding process.

“My obligation is to get the best deal for taxpayers,” Meyer said. “Ordinarily with an asset of this value under county law, under all sorts of other circumstances, I’d be required to bid it out. So, we’re still interested in bidding out.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on the airline industry right now – Frontier Airlines pulled out of its May relaunch of service from Wilmington Airport with plans to try again in November – and a five-year window until the contract expires, Meyer said the county has time on its side.

“We may end up continuing with the DRBA; we’ll see whatever’s in the best interest of county taxpayers,” he said.

In the interview with DBT, Meyer also confirmed that his administration won’t appeal a Court of Chancery ruling last month that found the outdated property tax assessment system used by Delaware’s three counties was unconstitutional.

The case was split by the court into a liability phase and a remedy phase, and Meyer said that he won’t appeal the ruling against the counties but rather hope to address its concerns in the remedy phase. A schedule for discussions in the remedy phase is due to be submitted to the court in the next few weeks.

“We think there are some serious issues with the decision the chancellor made in the liability phase,” he said. “We may have an opportunity to appeal it later and we may just do that.”

Meyer emphasized that the ruling will not affect property owners 2020 tax bills, especially as many are struggling during the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Your taxes are not going up this year and, for most people, your taxes will never go up as a result of this decision,” he said. “It’s going to be a several years process if there is a reassessment.”

By Jacob Owens

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