Sebastian County offers $1.8 million for runway project, hears staffing requests

FORT SMITH — Sebastian County has participated to help defray the increased costs of a project that is expected to have a significant economic impact on the region.

The Sebastian County Quorum Court unanimously approved spending $1.8 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds for the runway expansion project in course at the Fort Smith Regional Airport during its meeting on Tuesday. The county had earmarked $1 million to support the project last year.

The airport encompasses Ebbing Air National Guard Base. The Air Force selected Ebbing last year as the preferred location for a permanent pilot training center for Singapore and other nations participating in the Foreign Military Sales program. If selected, the base could house up to 24 foreign Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II aircraft and displace 12 General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcons from the Singapore Air Force, currently at Luke Air Base in Glendale, Arizona.

County Judge David Hudson said the expansion, which will add 1,300 feet of runway at Ebbing to prepare for the mission, was originally estimated at $22 million. Arkansas and Fort Smith respectively committed $17 million and $5 million to the project.

Airport manager Michael Griffin said an updated forecast provided by the engineering firm for the project, Halff Associates, put the total cost at $24.4 million.

A letter from Brian Maurer, vice president of Halff Associates, included in the Tuesday meeting brief, attributes the $2.4 million increase to a variety of factors. These include the need for more earthworks and rock excavation and equipment upgrades at the project site than originally anticipated, as well as construction and review and monitoring costs. from the Federal Aviation Administration higher.

Griffin said the airport expects paving of the runway extension to begin “within a month.” He expects the project to be completed around March, with the track fully open for use in early spring.

Hudson said that after speaking with Fort Smith city administrator Carl Geffken, about $8.2 million — $3 million from the state and $5 million from the city — had been spent on the project so far. A final decision by the Army on where the training mission should take place sometime next year.

“Fort Smith, our airport, our base, unofficially holds the leadership position, and as you all know, this is a major economic development initiative,” Hudson said. “It would be similar to locating a car manufacturing plant or something like that.”

Mayor George McGill estimated that after Ebbing was selected as the preferred location for the mission in June 2021, it could generate “almost a billion dollars” a year for the River Valley region.

District 11 Justice of the Peace Linda Murry said she believes the $1 million the county previously appropriated was “more than enough” for the project. She noted that she received criticism from voters about this initial amount, although she voted for the increased contribution.

The Court of Quorum also began its process of developing a budget for 2023 on Tuesday. This included hearing requests for new positions from county department heads and elected officials.

The biggest request came from Hobe Runion, county sheriff, who asked for two more full-time patrol deputies at a cost of $121,250 a year.

Runion said his department currently has 22 patrol assistants. He thinks two more deputies would allow him to feel more comfortable covering the sheriff’s office while being realistic about the county budget.

Runion noted that there are times when three deputies in total may be absent for various reasons — such as training, vacation or illness — which these new positions would help alleviate.

The quorum court will then discuss the 2023 county budget at its regular meeting on September 27.

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