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Carlee: House airport authority bill will put CLT into ‘chaos’

By Steve Harrison, Jim Morrill and Ely Portillo
sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee said Wednesday that a proposal from the N.C. House to transfer control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport from the city took a “bad (Senate) bill and amazingly made it worse,” and said he is concerned the airport will descend into “chaos.”

Carlee said the bill doesn’t address concerns raised by a city-hired consultant, who called for a “properly structured authority” to run the airport. Carlee said he is most troubled that there is no longer a 90-day transition period under the House bill and that immediately upon passage the city would lose control of the airport.

US Airways, the airport’s largest tenant, has said it is neutral as to whether the city or an independent authority runs the airport. Carlee said he believes the airline should be alarmed by the new bill.

“If I were US Airways I would be highly concerned,” Carlee said. “I think the airport is headed into chaos. I think it’s really in jeopardy.”

Despite his worries about airport administration, Carlee said he would expect Charlotte Douglas to still operate immediately following a bill’s passage.

“People are going to show up, I’m not talking about sequestration chaos,” Carlee said.

But, he said, an immediate handoff to an authority would raise numerous questions about other airport functions, including the status of bonds, and the management of tens of millions of dollars of construction contracts. Carlee worried about the ability of new authority members without experience to run the airport, instead of the city.

US Airways on Wednesday maintained its public stance of being “agnostic” about who owns the airport.

“US Airways’ issue is how the airport is managed, not its ownership,” said spokeswoman Michelle Mohr, in a statement. “The management philosophy of (aviation director) Jerry Orr and his team has created a low-cost, efficient business model.”

Although US Airways has said that it would approve of the airport being run either by an authority or by the city, the airline has made clear it expects to have a role in picking Orr’s successor.

US Airways talked with authority supporters last year and said it forwarded a draft bill from one supporter to another, but it ultimately declined to join the legislative push to create an authority.

Mohr said US Airways hopes the city and state legislators can “work together to come to an agreement that protects CLT’s value as an economic engine for the region.”

Compromise efforts flop

Carlee’s warnings are the latest twist in the struggle over Charlotte’s airport. The city and state legislature have been fighting to determine who owns and runs the airport since a bill to create the new, independent authority was introduced in February. The proposal, Senate Bill 81, has passed the state Senate and is being considered by the House.

In April, consultant Bob Hazel said he thought that an authority would be the best management structure for Charlotte Douglas. But he said the city should have more representation on the authority board, and he warned that transitions can be complicated and there needed to be sufficient time to solve problems that would arise from a shift in governance.

In the weeks that followed, it appeared that the city and legislators were working toward a compromise that might create an authority, though with a larger city presence and more accommodations for Charlotte.

Last month, N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Cornelius Republican, told a Charlotte Chamber group not to “put much stock in” parts of the Senate bill. He said he would work on a bill that “makes sense.”

“I have been reaching out to them,” said Carlee, who became manager April 1. “I thought we were on a path to doing something on a more collaborative manner. Then people quit calling. I don’t understand it.”

He said the new position in the GOP-controlled legislature is that there will be an authority.

Tillis convened a conference call last week with Carlee, two City Council members and key legislators. However, Republican Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews, the main House sponsor, said this week that talks were at an “impasse.”

“Are we going to make another offer to the city of Charlotte? No,” he said Wednesday. “But if the city wants to talk, I’ll talk with them.”

The authority push has new urgency, supporters said, because of a draft of the Charlotte Area Transit System’s possible plans to make up for funding shortfalls. The draft, released last month, said Charlotte could save on streetcar costs “from locating maintenance and storage facilities ‘inside the fence’ on the airport property,” and suggested the airport could subsidize riders using the streetcar to reach the airport.

That language isn’t in the final report, which only says CATS could use “coordination/financial cooperation from airport on West Corridor Streetcar.”

“The fact they’re looking to scam money out of the airport shows how important it is to get it out of the hands of these guys,” said former City Council member Stan Campbell.

The city lost goodwill from the legislature when lawmakers saw the memo, Campbell said. “I think when they saw that document everyone went, ‘Wow,’ and decided to move the bill,” he said.

Similar bills

The original Senate bill had a 13-member authority with two members appointed by the city. The House bill has an 11-member authority with two members from the city.

The House version of the bill has removed appointments by the governor and one at-large member. Under the Senate bill, only five members of the 11-person authority board would be from Mecklenburg. Cabarrus, Gaston, Lincoln and Iredell counties would be able to appoint members to the board.

The House version of the bill – which appears to have the support of the Senate sponsor, Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews – could hit the House Finance Committee next week and the House floor later this month. If passed, and if the Senate goes along with the changes, it would become law immediately. Because it’s a so-called local bill, it does not need the signature of Gov. Pat McCrory, Charlotte’s former mayor.

In the House version, the authority’s first executive director would be the person who was aviation director on Feb. 14: Jerry Orr. His salary would be initially set at the same level it was under the city, $211,041. The bill would give Orr the power to request continuation of shared administrative services from the city, for a fee, until he asks them to stop. Charlotte currently provides some shared services, such as accounting.

The initial members of the authority board would be current members of the city’s Airport Advisory Committee. They would serve until seven new authority members are appointed.

Those appointments are split between the city of Charlotte, Mecklenburg and five surrounding counties and legislative leaders. Observer staff writer Rick Rothacker contributed.

Portillo: 704-358-5041
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