Victoria Educational Gardens

The Victoria Educational Gardens at the Victoria Regional Airport was designed, constructed – and continues to be maintained weekly – for more than a decade by the Victoria County Master Gardeners.

Victoria County commissioners voted Monday to have the county begin paying the lease for the Victoria County Master Gardener Association.

Since the Victoria Regional Airport was found in “conditional compliance” after a three-day audit by the Federal Aviation Administration in July, airport and county commissioners have been working to address noncompliant building leases at the airport.

At the airport commission meeting in September, Lenny Llerena, the airport director, said the Master Gardeners’ situation was flagged by the FAA because they were operating with essentially no lease at all.

Representatives of the association, a nonprofit educational association that works to increase the knowledge of gardening to its members and the public, made a presentation to county commissioners court Monday. After the presentation, the commissioners approved covering the cost of the association’s lease, which will operate as a 10-year land lease, at a cost of 19 cents per square foot. The total cost to the county will be $1,026.36 plus utilities each month, County Judge Ben Zeller said.

Charla Borchers Leon, a past president and member of the association for more than 20 years, gave a thorough history of the association, dating back to 1997 when the Master Gardeners’ first training program was conducted.

More than 20 years later, the association’s services and programs include providing educational and garden tours, scholarships, kids’ camps, plant sales and more.

“We’ve been here two decades, we’ve had your support for two decades,” she said to the commissioners.

The association has about 140 members, said Michael Martignoni, the association’s president. The association’s members provide an average 12,000 volunteer hours a year, which has an annual economic impact of about $240,000 per year, he said.

“We’ve been able to do what we do because this community has been behind us in so many ways,” Borchers Leon said.

Zeller thanked the association’s members for the impact the group has in the community.

“Extension and all its related entities – 4-H, master gardeners – are really a shining success and an example of success as an arm of county government,” he said.

County commissioners echoed praise for the Master Gardeners and their efforts. Commissioner Kevin Janak said the gardens are the “prettiest section” of the airport.

Commissioner Clint Ives called the gardens a “crown jewel of Victoria County”

County Commissioner Gary Burns thanked the association’s members for their work in the community which, he said, is often not recognized by the public to the extent it deserves. He said though it’s clear how much the association gives back to the community, the “FAA has got us under scrutiny right now,” which matters, too.

County Commissioner Danny Garcia agreed.

“There was a threat, let’s not overlook that,” Garcia said. “The airport commissioners are helping us try to find and weave our way through that so that you guys can remain doing what you’re doing.”

Previously, the airport commission discussed giving the association five free rentals of the officers’ club per year, which Llerena said Zeller arranged. Airport commissioners largely did not agree with the arrangement, questioning if it would set a precedent for other nonprofits that may want to set up similar arrangements.

At that same meeting, the potential 10-year lease for the association was structured for the gardeners to pay $6,000 annually in installments of $500 per month, and the county would contribute about an additional $526 per month.

The airport commissioners voted not to add the five free rentals into the lease, and Zeller confirmed Monday the free rentals are no longer being considered.

Zeller explained Monday that the association is an “arm of county government” that falls under the umbrella of Texas A&M Agrilife Extension through the county extension office. He said the county already pays the entirety of the rental expense for the extension office, so he questioned why the county wouldn’t pay for the Master Gardener Association’s lease as well.

“I know we’ve had problems with the FAA and some of the demands, but, given the choice between asking you guys to pay that and then the court treating you the way we treat the other entities, unless there’s a compelling reason, I would think we treat them equally and cover that land lease with county dollars,” he said.

Airport Commissioner Buddy Billups, who was present at Monday’s meeting, said the airport commission recognizes the contributions from the master gardeners to the community, but, he said, the FAA doesn’t view the contributions the same way.

“That brings a little weight, but not a lot in terms of dollars and cents to the FAA,” he said.

Burns asked Zeller if he was sure this proposed lease agreement fits with the FAA requirements.

Zeller told him that the “per-square-foot dollar amount” came from Llerena and the FAA, so the commissioners’ approval of the plan would not change any of the terms the airport has agreed to, only the fact that the county would cover the cost of the lease rather than the Master Gardeners.

Airport Commission Chairman Trey Ruschhaupt said after Monday’s meeting he appreciated the commissioners’ efforts to recognize Llerena’s work to make all leases at the airport compliant with the FAA.

“The airport commissioners and airport manager have been targeted throughout this, but we’re all working to make sure we are compliant with the FAA,” he said.

Ruschhaupt said Llerena is comfortable with this lease and anticipates it being accepted by the FAA.

Zeller said broadening the extension’s lease to cover the gardens will likely be the easiest way to begin covering the cost of the Master Gardeners’ lease. He was not sure when the change would begin, as the new agreement must still be approved by the Master Gardener Association.

Morgan Theophil covers local government for the Victoria Advocate. She can be reached at 361-580-6511, or on Twitter

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