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City officials question airport finances

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  • City details Charlotte Douglas airport audits
  • O-pinion: Did we mention we're searching your car?
  • Mayor, county appoint members to airport commission
  • Archive: Coverage of the airport battle
  • Curbside valet service suspended

    Curbside valet parking at Charlotte Douglas is suspended for the next week or two, interim aviation director Brent Cagle said Monday, after the disclosure this weekend that airport employees search cars there.

    Cagle said the airport has had a policy in place for about 1 1/2 years to examine cars brought to its curbside valet drop-off. “Since they’re parked in front of the terminal, that could present safety concerns,” he said.

    But Cagle said it’s wrong to call what the airport does a “search.”

    “Employees at the airport will do a visual inspection of the passenger compartment and the trunk of the vehicle,” he said. Now, he said, the airport will examine how to do the inspections and how best to notify passengers. He said he hopes those issues can be worked out in the next five to 10 business days so curbside valet can be brought back.

    The “visual inspection” policy doesn’t apply to business valet parking, which will still be available. Ely Portillo

    Commission member leaves post over bank employment

    The Charlotte Airport Commission hasn’t met yet, but one of its 13 members has already stepped down. Pamela Bennett left the commission because the bank she works for has business relationships with the airport, including a hangar lease and a contract to provide ATMs.

    Bennett is a member of the city’s Airport Advisory Committee, which used to meet monthly and issue nonbinding recommendations to the City Council about Charlotte Douglas. She was appointed to the commission by the City Council.

    If Bennett were a City Council member, she could recuse herself from voting on Bank of America-related items. But the legislation creating the commission says members can’t have contracts with an airport or work for a company that has contracts with the airport.

    To replace Bennett, council members Monday appointed Linda Ashendorf of Linda Ashendorf Public Affairs.

    The commission is looking at dates in November to hold its first meeting.

    Vinroot said attorneys from both sides in the commission case are meeting later this week, and a court hearing in which a judge will consider whether the commission can run the airport could take place in the coming weeks.

    Orr said he hopes he can return to run the airport soon. He’ll get his old job back if the commission is approved.

    “Obviously I want to run the airport,” Orr said. “Every day I’m not there to run the airport, I think, is a day lost.” Ely Portillo and Steve Harrison



Sloppy bookkeeping and misfiled federal reports stretch back decades at Charlotte Douglas International Airport and need to be corrected, Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee said Monday.

But former Charlotte Aviation Director Jerry Orr and his attorney, former Charlotte mayor Richard Vinroot, dismissed the issues raised by Carlee. Vinroot called them “irrelevant” and a “sideshow” to the city’s campaign to fight off a new, independent commission the legislature created this year to run Charlotte Douglas.

The commission’s future is still uncertain as the city and Orr, who would get his old job back, await a court ruling about whether the commission can run the airport.

Monday’s disclosures are the first step in a series of wide-ranging audits Charlotte has launched to examine every aspect of the airport’s operations. The city plans to spend about $266,000 to examine everything from procurement policies to police staffing to the airport’s accounting practices in the wake of Orr’s removal as airport director this summer.

Interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle said Monday that the airport plans to spend approximately $100,000 more to hire a law firm specializing in FAA compliance to scrutinize Charlotte Douglas’ procedure.

The findings could mean the city has to pay millions of dollars back to the airport for loans that were never repaid under Orr, who ran the airport for 24 years.

Carlee, accompanied by Cagle, said problems the city has found so far include loans from the airport to the city that weren’t paid back, required Federal Aviation Administration reports filed incorrectly, and leases for airport grounds that misstated the amount of land under lease.

Carlee said there’s no evidence of any deliberate wrongdoing. Rather, he characterized the problems as a byproduct of the airport’s rapid growth from a small city hub to the country’s eighth-busiest airport by passenger traffic. While praising Orr’s leadership several times, Carlee also said the problems show that the airport wasn’t keeping pace with its growth.

“We have concerns about documentation. I think there was a lack of diligence,” Carlee said. He compared the airport’s growth to a mom-and-pop store that becomes a national retail chain. “A number of the systems have not kept up.”

In a measure of how divisive the fight over Charlotte Douglas has become, the two sides found themselves at odds Monday over the acreage of an Animal Care and Control pound located on airport grounds, built in 1991.

Carlee and Cagle said the airport had discovered that the facility is actually almost 6 acres, while it is officially listed in leases as only 2 acres. Orr disputed that.

“Are they surveyors?” Orr said. “My people (have) been surveying here since 1830, and I say the building occupies 2 acres.”

Orr also said the airport had no trouble with its record-keeping as it grew, and he denied that there would be any more problems found in the future. “I don’t think there are any irregularities there,” he said.

Charlotte Douglas is run as an independently funded city department, reporting to the city manager’s office. Federal rules prohibit diverting airport revenue – which includes landing fees, concessions, parking and more at Charlotte Douglas – to non-airport use.

The city spent $150,000 earlier this year to hire consultant Bob Hazel to determine the best way to govern the airport. Hazel recommended an airport authority but praised the city’s management of the airport thus far.

Orr called the audits an “outrageous” expense and said they will distract people from running the airport well.

“Something like this requires a tremendous amount of man-hours,” said Orr.

Cagle said the airport will be able to run well despite some managers being focused on the audits.

The problems Carlee said the city found so far cover three city-operated facilities on the airport’s property. They include:

• An Animal Care and Control Shelter. The city built the facility in 1991 with a $3 million loan from the airport. That loan hasn’t been repaid, Cagle said. The facility is also listed as 2 acres in the lease, but the city says it is nearly 6 acres.

• The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police helicopter hangar. The city expanded the facility with a $425,000 loan from the airport in 1999, which Cagle said hasn’t been repaid. The city has a ground lease for the site, which states the area as 0.25 acres, but the city says it is actually between 2 and 2.5 acres.

• Charlotte Fire Department Station 30. CFD operates the fire station on property the airport bought under the federal noise-abatement program. The airport doesn’t charge the city rent because it counts the fire department presence as an in-kind service. But Cagle said that hasn’t been properly accounted for, and there is no documentation from the FAA to support or value the in-kind services.

Carlee said the actual amount of money owed by the city or the airport to each other is not the issue, in the scope of both budgets. But he said the damage to the airport’s reputation as a well-run enterprise could be greater if the issues aren’t cleared up.

“The numbers are actually not that material,” Carlee said. “It’s just that you’ve got to do it right.”

After looking at governmental leases, Carlee said, the focus of the audits will turn to commercial leases at the airport. That could include scrutinizing arrangements with US Airways, the airport’s largest tenant by far.

Although the fight over who should run the airport is ongoing, Orr said he didn’t think the city’s move was a deliberate plan to cast doubt on his tenure.

“I would hope not,” Orr said. “I give them more credit than that.”

Cagle said he’s not trying to find mistakes made by his old boss, who hired him less than two years ago.

“I’m not digging around trying to find what Jerry did wrong,” Cagle said.

Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo
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