OXFORD — Employees at Oxford Aviation on Friday were feeling the loss of 23 workers — about half of the work force — laid off Thursday and were hoping they would return soon to the aircraft refurbishing plant.
The layoffs occurred after Oxford County commissioners decided to withhold a $100,000 payment due to the company Wednesday as part of a $250,000 legal settlement reached in January on maintenance of the airport buildings. The first installment of $50,000 was paid in January, and was to be followed by $100,00 on March 10; $50,000 on June 1; and $50,000 on Sept. 1.
Cheyenne Tripp, who runs the company's paint shop at the Oxford County Regional Airport, said the laid-off workers were most concerned about how long they would be out of work.
“You could tell there were a few people who were kind of in shock,” he said.
He said he usually has three five-person painting crews, but was down to one crew on Friday. He was concerned that those still on the job would be unable to get the planes serviced in a timely manner.
“I'm the only mechanic here today putting this plane together,” chief mechanic Aaron Wardwell said. “Normally, I have four.”
Horowitz said the expected payment from the county was included in the company budget and much of it was earmarked for roof repairs. The company felt a further crunch from the nonpayment, he said, due to past building repairs and the purchase a large amount of aviation fuel at a bulk rate for the Oxford facility and Eastern Slopes Aviation, a separate operation he owns in Fryeburg.
“I don't know many companies this size that have $100,000 lying around in some bank account or some slush fund,” Horowitz said.
The issue is rooted in building problems, which Horowitz said have persisted for 10 years. Oxford Aviation signed a 30-year lease with the county in 1996, making the county responsible for maintaining the facilities. The company is the fixed-base operator at the airport, with responsibilities that include monitoring radio traffic and reporting any problems at the site to the county.
Horowitz said problems with a leaky roof and difficulties in communication with the county led Oxford Aviation to perform $117,000 in repairs over the past decade. The leak led to damages, including stained ceiling tiles, rotted wood and mold. In August 2008, the company filed suit against Oxford County for breach of contract.
The parties agreed to settle in January by changing the terms of the lease. Maintenance responsibilities were transferred to Oxford Aviation, and in return the company's rent was waived, and the county agreed to pay $250,000 to finance repairs.
Joshua Carver, the county's attorney, said the decision to withhold the $100,000 payment was in response to Oxford Aviation's failure to provide assurances that repair work was being done.
Horowitz said a number of repairs have commenced since the settlement. They include the removal of damaged ceiling panels and Sheetrock, sealing the foundation and interim repairs to the roof. He said stopping the roof leaks is a crucial fix, but that it cannot be completed until temperatures are consistently above freezing.
Mark Lavoie and Russell Pierce Jr., the company's attorneys, have filed an amended complaint to the lawsuit and included the three county commissioners, David Duguay, Caldwell Jackson and Steve Merrill, in the action. The lawyers say the settlement did not specify that the company had to submit repair assurances, but that Oxford Aviation did so through written and oral communications with the county.
“I'm going to figure out a way to turn this all around, with or without the county's help,” Horowitz said.
He said he hoped to bring the laid-off employees back soon. One way to do that would be to accelerate the number of work orders to bring in more money, he said.
“They deserve a huge amount of respect and accolades," he said of his work force.