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Fri, Oct 17, 2008

EAA Faces Mounting Criticism From Its Home City

TIF Battle Has Raised Ire From Oshkosh Council, Community

The presence of the Experimental Aircraft Association's headquarters in Oshkosh, WI is somewhat analogous to a busy general aviation airport in a small town. It brings in lots of money to the local economy... but there will always be neighbors who complain.

If you've ever picked up a copy of the Oshkosh Northwestern while attending AirVenture, you know some locals think they should get free admission to the event, and rail against attempts to close down parking in off-airport areas with a view of the air show.

Those emotions have been brought to a head by a recent EAA master plan which proposed a tax-increment finance district to get city seed money for a $17 million-dollar expansion of EAA's facilities at Wittman Regional Airport, as ANN reported earlier this year.

The Green Bay Press-Gazette reports a TIF district normally freezes the tax base in the designated area for a specified period of years, so that any tax revenues brought in by new construction is applied to the cost of public works within the district. But EAA's plan was structured differently -- under its proposed TIF, the organization would borrow $1.9 million to make improvements, and tax revenues would have gone to EAA.

That plan sparked hot debate almost immediately.

EAA President Tom Poberezny says some members of the Oshkosh City Council made up their minds before they even saw the proposal. "We pulled back our proposal because there were people who stated publicly, before it even went to the city council, that they were against it," he said. "People have already prejudged what they are going to do."

Many opponents want to see city funds channeled instead to improving facilities downtown... the better to draw other events to the area, such as Country USA, the Great Outdoors Festival and Lifest. "There is a real debate," Poberezny said. "Some support putting money into the downtown center and others see it as putting good money after bad. We see it as two separate issues."

City councilman Tony Palmeri further inflamed the debate by publishing the salaries of top EAA executives on his blog, presenting the numbers as evidence that EAA is wealthy enough to pay for its own improvements at Wittman. Ten EAA execs are paid six-figure salaries... including Tom Poberezny at over $446,000.

"Our salaries have been a public record for a long time, and the salaries are set by a compensation committee made up of people from all walks of life," Poberezny responded. "If we weren't financially healthy I wouldn't be doing my job and this is the first time we have addressed the community in terms of support."

EAA says improvements will happen with or without city help, and that it's just a matter of how much, how soon. In the meantime, Oshkosh is finding new ways to milk its cash cow.

For the first time this year, the city will bill EAA for wastewater treatment entering its system from AirVenture, and Winnebago County wants to bill for any special services provided by the Sheriff.

EAA estimates its visitors leave $80 million in Wisconsin each year.

FMI: www.eaa.org, www.ci.oshkosh.wi.us/

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