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Morey Critical of County Commission Action on Airport Lease

Morey Critical of County Commission Action on Airport Lease

By Vince Conti

Cape May County Commissioner Will Morey
Freeholder Will Morey
Erin Ledwon/File Photo
Cape May County Commissioner Will Morey

CREST HAVEN – Cape May County Commissioner Will Morey has criticized his fellow commissioners for sending notice to the Delaware River and Bay Authority that they would not automatically renew the authority’s lease on the county airport.

Morey, in a statement June 15, said the decision was premature, since the county’s goals could probably have been achieved without taking the step of non-renewal of the lease, which is $1 per year.

He also was critical of the process the commissioners used to reach their decision, saying, “From early in the process, the county commission board did not engage in thoughtful, organized and effective negotiations with DRBA.”

Morey added: “As a result of that non-renewal action, the county will now be required to make a payment to the DRBA of an estimated $32 million and will assume significant costs associated with the operation of the airport, costs that until now were borne by the DRBA without charge to the county.”

At an emergency meeting of the county commissioners on June 6 the board passed a resolution, 3-1, to prevent the automatic renewal of a 30-year lease and operating agreement held by DRBA on the approximately 1,000-acre airport property. The dissenting vote was cast by Morey.

DRBA has operated the airport for 25 years, investing millions in the airport’s upkeep, operations and new development. Its other facilities include the Delaware Memorial Bridge, the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, the Wilmington Airport and other smaller airports and air parks.

Morey said in his statement that the strong working relationship between the county and DRBA “formed a basis for tens of millions of dollars to be invested by the DRBA at the county airport at no cost to county taxpayers.” To anyone who says the county has the money for this assumption of responsibilities, Morey counters that such a claim “does not mean it’s a wise decision.”

Morey provided an insight into the workings of the commission board when he said that he learned “after the fact” that representatives of the county had advised the DRBA in writing a week before the first scheduled meeting for discussions between the commissioners and the DRBA that the county planned to issue the non-renewal notice.

He claims that “informal notice” to the DRBA “effectively undermined the reasonable opportunity to engage in substantive discussions with the DRBA.”

The commission board has largely been remade after the retirement of previous commission Director Gerald Thornton and Commissioner Jeff Pierson, along with the resignation of E. Marie Hayes, who stepped down to successfully run for county surrogate. With the exception of Commissioner Director Leonard Desiderio and Morey, no member of the five-person commission has served more than 18 months in their positions.

In May 2023, as the DRBA, the county and Lower Township officials joined to break ground on a new terminal building at the airport, DRBA Executive Director Thomas Cook said, “Our collective efforts are producing results that will pay dividends for airport customers and Cape May County residents for many years to come.”

One year later, when asked if the new $7.4 million terminal under construction, paid for largely with DRBA funds, would be considered a reimbursable expense under the non-renewal, Desiderio said yes.

Morey said that even though he has expressed disappointment in the decision and the process leading to it, he remains “fully committed to working productively with my commission colleagues as we all pursue what is in the best interest of the county’s residents and taxpayers.”

The vote on the non-renewal took place at a special emergency meeting to which the public gets last-minute notice rather than at a regularly scheduled meeting of the commission.

Statement of Cape May County Commissioner Will Morey:

“As you may have learned, I voted against having Cape May County issue a Notice of Non-Renewal of the Lease and Operating Agreement between the County and the Delaware Bay River Authority (DRBA) under which the DRBA has for twenty-five years operated and invested in the Cape May County Airport property.  As a result of that non-renewal action, the County will now be required to make a payment to the DRBA of an estimated $32 Million and will assume the significant costs associated with the operation of the airport, costs that until now were borne by the DRBA without charge to the County.

“In a situation of such magnitude, I believe that members of the public are entitled to know why I voted “no,” and to be aware of my concerns about the manner in which the County terminated its long-standing relationship with the DRBA.

“The County Commissioners, both individually and as a Board, are responsible for acting in the best interests of the public and I respect both the democratic process and the views of each County Commissioner for what he or she believes is best for the County.  From my perspective as former lead and “point of contact” on behalf of the County with the DRBA executive team for twelve years, it’s clear that the significant progress made in the “clean up” and development of the Cape May County Airport was made possible upon a strong foundation of trust and a very active, collaborative working relationship between County and DRBA teams.  This relationship formed a basis for tens of millions of dollars to be invested by the DRBA at the County Airport at no cost to County taxpayers.  It is also important to share that any earnings the DRBA generates from its County Airport investments must be reinvested in the airport.

“In my view, from early in the process, the County Commissioner Board did not engage in thoughtful, organized, and effective negotiations with the DRBA regarding the continuation of its Lease and Operating Agreement.  For the twelve years I participated as lead, the County and the DRBA engaged in and committed to sincere and straightforward discussions on all matters.  Considering this excellent working relationship, I was surprised and disappointed when I learned, after the fact, that representatives of the County had advised the DRBA in writing a week before the first scheduled meeting for discussions between the County Commissioner Board and the DRBA that the County Commissioners planned to issue a Notice of Non-Renewal for the purpose of re-negotiating certain provisions of the agreements.  This first meeting was one where the DRBA was to present on its activities at the airport and parties were to explore the feasibility of certain Agreement modifications that were of interest to the County.  Quite understandably, representatives of the DRBA expressed surprise and concern when advised by the County in such a manner that it was planning to non-renew the Lease and Operating Agreement.  The meeting planned for discussion of desired modifications was then postponed by the County.  It soon became clear that the County’s informal notice had effectively undermined the reasonable opportunity to engage in substantive discussions with the DRBA and the meeting between County Commissioners and the DRBA was not rescheduled or held. 

“Based on my extensive direct engagement and experience with the DRBA management team, it is my opinion that with an earlier and less dysfunctional approach by the County, the County very likely could have achieved all or the “lion’s share” of its interests through earnest discussion and continued partnership with the DRBA.  And, very notably, done so without County taxpayers incurring an estimated $32 million reimbursement obligation to the DRBA for assets that have been or will shortly be in place and serving the County at zero cost to County taxpayers.  Additionally, the County would have retained a partner with a demonstrated record of substantial non-Cape May County taxpayer-funded investment into the airport and avoided the significant expense of taking responsibility for the cost and liability of airfield and business park operations.  Surely, a claim by the County that it has the money to afford such a decision, does not mean it’s a wise decision.

“Finally, it is not lost on me that I am a member of the County Commission Board and bear a measure of responsibility for the Board’s actions, even when I’m in the minority.  In this case, I regret that was not able to be more persuasive in such a significant matter.

“Above said, I think it’s important to make clear that while I am disappointed with the decision and the manner in which the County engaged in negotiations, what is done is done, and thus, I remain fully committed to working productively with my Commissioner colleagues as we all pursue what is in the best interest of the County’s residents and taxpayers.  And, as we move forward, I’m hopeful we will all be reminded that, like it or not, differences of opinion and perspective, when embraced by a group, are extremely important to building high-functioning teams and with it, the quality of their decisions.”

This is a developing story.

Contact the reporter, Vince Conti, at vconti@cmcherald.com.

Reporter

Vince Conti is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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