Sunday, March 23, 2014

Charleston airport board seeks another attorney general’s opinion

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson may need to set up a satellite office at the Charleston County Aviation Authority.

For the second time in about three months, the agency will ask him for an opinion on an authority-related matter.

This time it involves whether a public service district or political subdivision, such as the Aviation Authority, is exempt from paying fees like it is from paying taxes.

Board member Mallory Factor raised the issue after the authority agreed last year to pay the city of North Charleston a little more than $430,000 for inspections during the $189 million makeover of Charleston International Airport.

Factor maintains that the agency, as a public service district, should not have to pay those fees or any others.

"This is a bigger issue than the $430,000," he said.

Board member Larry Richter agreed. "It bears more attention. At the end of the day we still may have to pay that." But, like Factor, he wants it to be further scrutinized.

Aviation Authority attorney Arnold Goodstein said the issue already has been resolved.

He cited a 1999 state Supreme Court case involving the city of Charleston and the state of South Carolina involving stormwater fees. Then-Attorney General Charlie Condon sued the city after the city levied a stormwater fee on state agencies such as the Medical University of South Carolina and other state-supported entities in the city. The court ultimately ruled in the city's favor that it could levy a fee on the state.

"Any government entity can assess a fee," Goodstein concluded from the court ruling. "Taxes we don't pay. ... I'm satisfied if it's a fee, we are responsible for paying it."

As Aviation Authority Chairman Andy Savage was about to forward the issue to a committee for further review, board member Teddie Pryor said it was unnecessary.

"The attorney has rendered a legal opinion," he said. "I don't think we need to waste staff time and legal time."

After more hemming and hawing among board members, Pryor moved to seek an opinion from the attorney general to resolve the issue. The board agreed.

Savage also referred the issue to the governance committee for a closer look, citing Factor's concerns that the issue goes beyond the North Charleston fees.

And the chairman of thatcommittee? North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey. He serves on the 13-member airport board but did not attend the airport meeting. Since the issue involves his city, he may recuse himself. Summey couldn't be reached for comment.

Board member Walter Hundley, an attorney who also serves on the governance committee, said he would stand in to chair the panel if Summey recuses himself.

The latest request comes after the agency asked the attorney general in December to issue an opinion over whether the agency has to seek bids for professional services.

That issue arose over a proposed contract for Goodstein, the airport agency's attorney. The attorney general's office said the agency did not have to follow state procurement code, but instead must follow its own procurement manual. An independent attorney hired by the agency said the Aviation Authority must follow its procurement procedures and seek bids for legal services or change the procurement manual.

Goodstein remains the agency's attorney, but the airport board is expected to take up the bidding process for an attorney during budget talks that start in April.