County rejects paying for security at Aspen airport
Pitkin County set itself up yesterday for a showdown with the federal government over who pays for airport security.
The county commissioners and sheriff say they will not comply with a federal directive ordering them to dispatch deputies and other police officers to work as security guards at the Aspen airport, unless the feds are willing to cover the costs.
The directive requires county, city and other local governments throughout the nation to replace National Guard troops with law enforcement officers at airport security checkpoints. It was issued April 1 by the recently created Transportation Security Administration. It is due to go into effect May 10.
Local decision makers maintain it is an unfunded mandate for which they have neither the money nor personnel to meet.
“It’s a federal mandate without adequate funding – if there’s no bucks, then there’s no Buck Rogers,” said Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis. “If they’re not going to pay for what they want, then they are not going to get what they want.”
A majority on the board of county commissioners said they would consider shutting down commercial operations to make their point.
“I would go so far as to say that I’d restrict operations at the airport, if not shut it down,” County Commissioner Jack Hatfield said.
Federal officials were unsure how to react yesterday.
“This is new territory. I don’t know what would happen if they refuse to comply,” said Alan Kenitzer, a spokesman from the Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Security Administration. Kenitzer and another TSA official who requested anonymity said Pitkin County’s refusal may be the first of its kind in the country.
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Grand Junction) said the question of funding has yet to come up at the congressman’s staff meetings.
“To my knowledge it’s not something that’s on our radar,” said Blain Rethmeier, McInnis communications director.
The commissioners reached their defiant state yesterday after being told the Transportation Security Administration is willing to reimburse the county for only about 40 percent of the cost of guarding the airport.
They voted 5-0 against signing the standard contract that the TSA is negotiating with local governments throughout the country. The contract defines responsibilities of local law enforcement agencies that are taking over for the National Guard and sets the levels of reimbursement.
The best offer so far from the TSA has been to pay $31 per hour for deputies and police officers standing guard at the airport during commercial operations, up to 14.5 hours a day. The sheriff’s office normally charges $75 an hour to provide private security services.
According to a memo from airport director Jim Elwood, the county has few options for covering the difference other than tapping the general fund or airport fund or raising landing fees by more than 50 percent. The commissioners found none of those solutions palatable.
“Whether its $75 or $31 or $23 an hour to do this doesn’t matter. We just don’t have the money,” said County Commissioner Shellie Roy.
National Guard units were called up by President George W. Bush to provide security at airports nationwide following Sept. 11. The TSA was created last November in the wake of continuing failures in airport security following the terrorist attacks in New York and Virginia.
Demobilization of the Guard and the TSA directive represent an attempt to shift costs to local jurisdictions while the TSA hires and trains its own security forces, which would eventually replace local law enforcement in airports, Elwood said.
Carrington Brown, Aspen airport security coordinator, said the federal directive puts smaller airports like Pitkin County’s in a real bind, because there simply aren’t enough qualified people available to do the work. Airports in Durango and Telluride are also having difficulty making ends meet in both areas, staffing and funding. He said larger airports, like DIA, have in-house police departments, so compliance isn’t as difficult from either a personnel or funding standpoint.
Tom Grady, the sheriff’s director of operations, said there are normally three deputies on duty in the county during the daytime. Reassigning one of them to the airport would reduce the force by a third on most days and by half on days when only two deputies are working.
He reckons the only way to meet the TSA mandate is to offer overtime pay to deputies and officers from other police departments in the valley. Past offers for private security work have been well-received at first, they said, but interest fades, even at premium wages, if the work lasts more than a few weeks.
Braudis said the $75 per hour rate for private security is the amount necessary to induce deputies and officers, and cover his department’s costs.
“You can’t mandate people to work overtime for the long term, people burn out,” Braudis said in an interview after the meeting.
Grady and other officials from the airport and sheriff’s office have been in discussions with the TSA since April 2, the day after the directive was issued. They say negotiators from the TSA and the FAA have refused to believe that the cost of living here is as high as locals say it is.
“We told them that there isn’t a house within three miles of the airport that would sell for less than $3 million, but they didn’t believe us,” Grady said.
The $31 an hour reimbursement offer was made just yesterday morning.
“The TSA has agreed to pay a negotiated part of the direct costs,” said TSA spokesman Kenitzer, who works in the Seattle area. “We’re talking about regular police costs.”
Congress gave the TSA broad authority over airport security. But the limits of that authority may become clear as the agency tries to pass both the cost and responsibility for security down to local jurisdictions like Pitkin County.
“We’ll work this out with them eventually,” Braudis said. “But the TSA can’t mandate a sheriff in Colorado to do anything about airport security.”
Kenitzer said he didn’t know if the TSA would shut down commercial operations at an airport that refused to comply with its directive.
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