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Charlotte may give up some ground on airport

Even without a law being passed to transfer control of Charlotte’s airport to an independent authority, supporters of that idea seem poised to win many of the changes they want, as the city scrambles to keep control of its biggest economic asset.

Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx and City Manager Ron Carlee have guaranteed US Airways a role in picking Aviation Director Jerry Orr’s successor.

Carlee is also considering whether Charlotte Douglas International Airport should go back to managing its own police force, only six months after Charlotte-Mecklenburg police took over with a mandate to improve security.

And Carlee has said the city could consider loosening procurement rules for the airport, which Orr says are burdensome, and establishing a separate pay scale for the city’s aviation department.

Carlee said in an interview Friday that he could even consider an authority running the airport. He was asked by the Observer whether he would support the airport being run in a manner similar to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, which manages the city’s tourism efforts.

Under that model, the mayor and City Council would appoint all authority board members.

The city’s elected officials would have a single annual vote on sending the airport an annual appropriation of money. But day-to-day decisions about airport management would be made by an authority board.

“I wouldn’t rule anything out,” Carlee said about the CRVA model. “There are all kinds of models. But let’s first try and clarify what we are trying to achieve.”

Under proposed legislation in Raleigh, control and ownership of the airport would transfer to a new, regional authority. The city of Charlotte would appoint only two of 13 board members and would have no financial control over the airport.

When the bill was first introduced in February, city leaders opposed it vigorously. They have since moderated their position on the legislation, arguing for more time to study and improve any legislation under consideration.

But despite Carlee’s concessions, it might be too late to sway authority supporters.

Former City Council member Stan Campbell doesn’t see the city’s efforts as genuine. Campbell said he believes the city still intends to raid the airport to fund projects such as the proposed streetcar.

“I think they’re just pretending to lay low, and when everybody turns their back, they’ll do it again,” Campbell said. “I don’t listen to what they say. I watch what they do.”

The only way to protect the airport, Campbell said, is to establish an independent authority.

City officials have adamantly denied Campbell’s claims that it plans to use airport funds for projects outside airport property. That would be a violation of federal law, they have pointed out.

The airport is funded by airline fees and concession revenue, and it doesn’t receive city tax dollars.

The city’s intense lobbying may be having an impact in Raleigh, however. In early May, House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Cornelius Republican, said the current legislation may change. He said the House must pass a “bill that makes sense.”

Study’s findings

In a city-funded study finalized earlier this month, consultant Bob Hazel identified a number of areas in which an authority could be more effective than the city in airport management.

In a May 10 letter to the Mecklenburg legislative delegation, Carlee wrote that those improvements are “theoretical.”

Carlee wrote that a “business case has not been made for an authority.” He added that the city is studying ways to make airport operations more effective.

Orr, one of the city’s best-known administrators, has headed the airport since 1989. He supports giving control to an independent authority, which he would report to instead of City Council and the manager.

The authority bill passed the state Senate earlier this year. It’s now being considered by the N.C. House, which could pass the legislation this session.

Supporters of an independent authority cited many examples of what they called city meddling in airport affairs. Campbell said former City Manager Curt Walton wasn’t going to give US Airways enough of a role in choosing Orr’s successor.

Orr, 72, was incensed by the decision to transfer airport police oversight to Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, which he called a “debacle” in one email. City supporters said the move, which increased police costs from $2.6 million to $5.5 million, was necessary to fight crime and improve security under the airport.

Last month, the city went so far as to release a letter from the Department of Homeland Security showing the federal government supported the move, and a memo from CMPD Chief Rodney Monroe said security at the airport was still problematic.

Orr has said the city’s purchasing rules were too burdensome and that the airport couldn’t act like a business as a department of the government.

Hazel, the consultant hired by the city for $150,000, said the airport would be able to pay more to attract and retain top talent under an authority. He recommended the city give up control of the airport.

City concessions

On all of those issues, the city now appears willing to bend. Consider:

• Foxx and Carlee have both said US Airways will have a role in choosing Orr’s successor.

• Carlee is examining costs for policing the airport. He has said it might not be necessary for CMPD to oversee security anymore and that the city should consider how best to provide for airport security. That could include going back to an airport-managed police force or using private security guards.

“I don’t want to second-guess what the city did,” Carlee said of the decision to put CMPD in charge of airport security. “But now that we have done it, we have to ask, ‘How is it working out?’ ”

Carlee said the airport could have its own purchasing rules, allowing the airport to circumvent regular city rules for spending money.

The City Council meets four times a month, which gives the airport many opportunities to get council approval. But the meetings often go on for hours, with airport officials waiting for approval of routine purchases.

It’s possible the city could allow the aviation department greater latitude in how it spends its money. Or, under a CRVA model, a city-appointed independent board would approve all expenditures monthly.

• The aviation department could have a separate pay scale, Carlee said. The city currently has a separate pay scale, which typically includes bigger raises, for public safety employees.

Orr’s salary is $211,041, and some have said the city will have to spend considerably more to hire an effective successor.

But there are rules today that require the city manager to be the highest-paid employee. When former Charlotte Area Transit System chief executive Ron Tober was hired, he made more than the former manager, Pam Syfert.

“I don’t want to compare aviation directors to NCAA coaches,” Carlee said. “But they are both public employees.”

Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo
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