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.


Editorial: The threat to rural air service

Small regional airports in rural areas have always battled market forces.

Seven airports in Nebraska are able to offer air service only through the generosity of Congress, which supplies more than $200 million a year in subsidies nationwide through the Essential Air Service program.

It’s no exaggeration to say that these airports suddenly find themselves in a crisis.

Great Lakes Airlines, which serves six of Nebraska's subsidized airports, has not been able to find enough pilots to keep its planes in the air.

The airline had to cancel all its flights out of McCook Ben Nelson Regional Airport during the first half of March, and it had to cut the number of flights out of North Platte from four a day to one.

Last week the airline announced that it was suspending all flights to and from McCook effective April 1 through April 27. The airline also has announced flight suspensions in other cities that it serves.

The primary cause of the pilot shortage is a new requirement enacted by Congress that pilots at small airlines have 1,500 hours of flight experience, up from the previous requirement of 500 hours. Congress set the higher standards after a plane crash in Buffalo, N.Y., killed all 49 people on board.

People at regional airports think the new standard is too high. “Congress created this mess and they need to do something about it,” Mike Sharkey, general manager of the North Platte airport, told the North Platte Telegraph. “It can be sorted out with safety in mind. They need to change it back to something more reasonable.”

It’s unclear, however, whether rolling back the required amount of flight experience is sufficient. As Business Week pointed out in an article earlier this month, “the life of an airline pilot lost its glamour a long time ago.”

Entry-level pay ranges from $17,000 to $22,000 a year, and the cost of flight training can top $100,000, the magazine said.

Great Lakes Airlines, which has the distinction of existing only because of its ability to attract more than $50 million a year in federal dollars, has resorted in some cases to taking seats out of its planes, which allows them to fly with a co-pilot who does not meet the 1,500-hour requirement.

Erstwhile fiscal conservatives like Rep. Adrian Smith have been able to set aside their generalized disdain for federal subsidies in the past when it came to approving additional funding for the Essential Air Service program.

But they face opposition from Tea Party types and longtime fiscal hawks like Sens. John McCain and Tom Coburn.

It’s one thing for federal programs to live on year after year. But it will be difficult in the current climate in Washington to win approval for expansion. The market forces are gathering strength. Change is in the air.

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Foothills Regional Airport (KMRN), Morganton, North Carolina

Sentenced former manager of Foothills Regional Airport files appeal

MORGANTON, NC — The former manager of Foothills Regional Airport has filed an appeal in his case.

Alex Nelson was sentenced Feb. 25 to three years in federal prison for conspiracy, embezzlement and money laundering. Nelson received three years of supervised release when he gets out of prison as part of the sentence. Nelson also will pay $179,781.51 in restitution, with $129,781.51 going to the airport and $50,000 going to the N.C. League of Municipalities.

When he was sentenced, Nelson was told he had the right to appeal his sentence within 14 days.
Nelson is one of three airport officials who have pleaded guilty in wrongdoing at the airport. Brad Adkins pleaded guilty to conspiracy and embezzlement on the same day as Nelson — Sept. 24, 2012. Adkins has not been sentenced yet.

Nelson said Friday he filed the appeal to have it review by an appellant court attorney. The case is appealed to the Fourth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.

“I’ve got questions about the process,” Nelson told the Daily Record.

He said if the attorney reviews the case and finds everything satisfactory then he will withdraw the appeal.

Nelson signed the appeal pro se, meaning he is proceeding with the action without an attorney, according to the US Court of Federal Claims website.

Nelson is out on bond. At his sentencing in February, Nelson was not taken into custody and was allowed to self-report to prison.

Nelson said he was sorry and he accepted responsibility for what happened on his watch.
Reidinger said, however, Nelson was treading awfully close to denying his part in the crimes that occurred at the airport.

The federal government revoked the bond of Brad Adkins and he has been held at the McDowell County jail. Adkins faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

No sentencing date has been set for Randy Hullette, former chairman of the board of Foothills Regional Airport, who pleaded guilty to embezzlement and witness tampering Aug. 21. He faces a total maximum sentence of 30 years. No presentence investigation report on Hullette has been filed yet, which is required before sentencing.

The FBI raided the airport in June 2012, seizing files, records, computers, log books and other information. The warrant included records from the airport involving Nelson, Adkins and Hullette defrauding the airport of at least $100,000.

The warrant also called for seizing any files, records or information related to Hullette Aviation, Burkemont Service Center, RANMAC Inc., Jeffrey Rose, Grady Rose Tree Service, Jimmy “Ron” Gilbert, Gilbert Grading and Construction, Simon Roofing and Parton Lumber.

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Chico Municipal Airport (KCIC), California

Editorial: Does the Chico airport need saving?

What if it took a one airline ticket to San Francisco flight to save air service in Chico, or one ticket not bought here to sink it?

Obviously it's not that simple, but the message is becoming clear there's a reason to be concerned.

While the City Council has fretted over the airport budget, no one has wrung their hands over the future of air service in Chico, except the Chico Airport Commission.

At its quarterly meetings the commission has said it's worried that Chico's only passenger air carrier, United Airlines through United Express, will pull out.

The commission also fretted about how to boost passenger levels at the Chico airport, in part, to keep United here. While Chico loves air service, residents aren't rushing to use it.

To this point, there has been no hint from United that it's considering abandoning Chico, but the commission is justifiably nervous after hearing about Sonoma County, which found itself airline-less for about five years.

A recent speaker here said United pulled out without notice, while expanding elsewhere.

While Chico has reached out to United in letters and phone calls, the response has not been reassuring or hopeful.

We don't know what United thinks about Chico. As much as we'd like to feel comfortable there are good reasons we can't.

Passenger numbers on the United Express flights have never been outstanding from this end. On the San Francisco end, fog, air traffic congestion, and reliability leave our air travelers stranded or on the run. That's not optimum for consumer confidence.

You can't blame them for driving to Sacramento.

Seeing this collapsing scenario, the Airport Commission has sounded the horn, saying we might lose what we have.

A business advocate, the Chico chamber has shown finesse and leadership in dealing with business-impacting issues. It seemed reasonable for the Airport Commission to turn to the chamber and business community for help in finding solutions for the airport.

Maybe Chico needs to decide if keeping the service is worth sacrifices like paying more for tickets — which it generally does — or dealing with the current San Francisco handicaps.

We'd hate to find out what it's like to be without air service, so we hope the community steps up on this one.

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