Jefferson County prepares for upgrades at Watertown airport, plans updates to management structure

Oct. 9—DEXTER — The Watertown International Airport is on track for some major improvements in the coming years, and Jefferson County officials are preparing the airport's administration for the expanded responsibilities.

Legislators on the county's Finance and Rules Committee moved last week to advance Local Law II of 2022, which would restructure the airport's administration, eliminating the current airport manager position and instituting a director of aviation position in its place.

If approved, airport manager Grant W. Sussey, who has run the facility since 2013, would be appointed as the county's first director of aviation in 2023. He would be paid $96,000 a year, a raise from the $77,955 the airport manager position is paid as of 2022.

The county operates the airport as a stand-alone department, with no tax money used to support it. Salaries and operational costs are covered by revenues generated at the airport and grants awarded to the facility by state and federal agencies.

County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III said Mr. Sussey's job scope has grown significantly since he was first hired, as the airport has grown in size and popularity, serving nearly 50,000 passengers arriving or departing in 2018. While passenger numbers have dipped due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they're expected to return to or surpass pre-pandemic levels within the year.

That expansion of responsibilities requires additional compensation in order to keep the airport attractive to skilled management, and Mr. Hagemann said the new position comes with some plans for when the airport will need a new director, and will better position the airport to attract qualified talent in the future.

"Nothing to do with the gentleman who is currently there, but at some point in time if he moves on, we need to recruit folks of his same caliber," Mr. Hagemann said. "With the pay scale in place, it's clear we would not attract the type of qualified candidates that would be required to oversee and operate the international airport as it stands today."

A lot has changed at the airport over the last decade to make it much more popular, and more intensive to operate.

The airport's fixed-base operations, essentially its private plane terminals that serve companies, individuals and even the military, is now managed by the airport directly after years under private operation.

"With that, those duties grew dramatically, just on the general aviation side, not even considering the commercial side," he said.

And those commercial responsibilities will only grow in the coming years. The airport was recently awarded $28 million from the state to reconstruct and expand the terminal, with a larger Transportation Security Administration screening area, a new visual paging and signage system, a baggage claim, a new waiting room and commercial space available to the non-traveling public. A jet bridge will also be installed to connect the terminal directly to planes.

The county anticipates the current commercial operator, American Eagle, which works with American Airlines, will begin sending larger planes to the airport to handle the growing number of passengers. Mr. Hagemann said the changes on the horizon will require additional security management, and will almost certainly lead to more customers and employees at the airport.

"The person managing all of that happens to be the airport manager, which is another reason for the title change," he said.

The law will go before the county legislature on Tuesday. As a public hearing is required before passage, it will not be considered until November's board meeting.