Friday, March 11, 2005

Airport, security agency dispute funding sources

Express Staff Writer

Friedman Memorial Airport finds itself engulfed in the same dilemma as other local public agencies around the country: being ordered by the U.S. government to adopt a program and then being short-changed on funding.

The flap came to light last week at the airport authority's regular monthly meeting when Hailey Mayor Susan McBryant, who's also a board member, charged the Transportation Security Administration is reneging on funding of three full-time Hailey police officers hired specifically for airport security.

"It's an unfunded mandate," McBryant said later. "We were instructed (by TSA) to provide police personnel that we had not contemplated nor budgeted without TSA support."

"Now we're told (TSA) won't pay what the contract reads," said a fuming McBryant.

In another stunning development, McBryant said the TSA also is suggesting that the Hailey airport may owe the government reimbursement for overpayments.

According to airport manager Rick Baird, who cautioned that he could not discuss some details because of national security, the dispute basically is over how much of the Hailey officers' time TSA will fund.

Baird maintains that airport terminal security must begin with the day's first flight and not end until the last flight. TSA apparently believes security is necessary only during loading and unloading of departing and arriving flights and not between.

The Hailey officers are paid about $25 per hour. With benefits the cost rises to about $35 per hour. Baird estimates the yearly cost of the officers is between $110,000 and $120,000.

In his customarily understated way, Baird said "discussions are ongoing between TSA and Friedman about what (TSA) will pay for. The way they have phrased the discussion, we would have a difficult time agreeing to."

TSA's local representative at the airport, Pat Sepe, declined to comment on the dispute.

If TSA prevails in restricting the funding to flight arrivals and departures only, Friedman faces a dilemma. TSA conceivably could rule that without constant police details the airport lacks proper security.

Either Friedman Memorial or the city of Hailey would need to fund the difference between TSA's limited funding and the full-time salaries and benefits of the officers.

"My frustration," McBryant said, "is we're so consumed with the possibility of relocating the airport and keeping airline customers. I'd rather subsidize the police force that's keeping (the airport) safe."

Funding disputes between local and federal governments has created tensions throughout the country. The Bush administration ordered schools to adopt standards of the No Child Left Behind program, but then didn't provide funds to administer it. Clinton White House funding of 100,000 new police officers also has been slashed by the Bush administration.

One funding showdown between a state and Washington is under way in Arizona, where Gov. Janet Napolitano has sent a bill of $118 million to the Justice department for housing 4,000 illegal aliens in state facilities at a cost of $55 per day for each detainee.

Washington has not yet responded.

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