Feds: Airport will close without cops | AspenTimes.com

Feds: Airport will close without cops

Commercial operations at Pitkin County airport will be shut down if the county fails to comply with a security directive from the federal government, an official with the Transportation Security Administration said yesterday.

The official, who spoke to The Aspen Times on condition of anonymity, said there would be no choice but to shut the airport down if security checkpoints are not manned with local police beginning May 10.

The TSA issued a directive on April 1 ordering airports and local governments nationwide to make their own security arrangements so the National Guard, which has been providing security since September 11, can be relieved.

The security administration is also requiring local governments to cover at least some of the cost of providing full-time armed security – something they haven’t been required to do the past seven months.

The official interviewed yesterday was responding to reports that Pitkin County has refused, at least for now, to take over security functions at Sardy Field.

He said an unmanned checkpoint in Aspen would open an unacceptable hole in security for the entire air transportation system.

“We’re talking about a situation that involves the safety of passengers – not only in Aspen but everywhere,” the official said.

County officials involved with negotiations with the TSA say they are mulling several options to resolve the situation before the federal government needs to make a call on shutting down the airport.

“We’re going to stay in touch with the TSA and work to find a reasonable answer to the question at hand,” said Jim Elwood, Pitkin County airport director.

In a unanimous vote on Wednesday, the county commissioners refused to enter into a memorandum of agreement with the TSA that would transfer responsibility for airport security from federal to local jurisdiction.

The commissioners, who have cut their budget twice since last fall, say the directive amounts to an unfunded mandate that is impossible to meet. Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis said compliance is also impossible from a manpower perspective. On any given day, the county only has three deputies on patrol, and Braudis said public safety would be jeopardized if one of them was assigned to the airport.

Officially, Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Rebecca Trexler said her bosses would “rather not comment on the situation” in Pitkin County.

Trexler did say the burden on local government will only be temporary, until her agency hires and deploys its own security guards. The TSA was created by Congress last November following several significant security lapses at major airports.

“We’ve said we will provide some reimbursement to local jurisdictions,” she said.

But Trexler couldn’t say what percentage of the costs would be forthcoming from federal coffers, however. So far, the TSA’s best offer to Pitkin County has been to pay $31 an hour for airport security, about 40 percent of the $75 an hour cost the sheriff charges for private security.

Trexler and her bosses may soon be forced to comment on the situation in Pitkin County, because it has the potential to be repeated wherever commercial airports are located in rural America.

Officials here and elsewhere have said they are nervous that the memorandum the TSA is plying on local communities contains no real guarantee of reimbursement. The third paragraph of the memorandum in fact contains a disclaimer: “Reimbursement is subject to the availability of appropriated funding for this purpose.”

Despite that contractual ambiguity, Trexler maintains that “as far as she has heard” there have been no complaints from any other airports or local governments about the directive. But officials in La Plata County in southwestern Colorado say they, too, have been negotiating with the TSA to no avail.

Don Brockus, deputy director and security coordinator at the Durango-La Plata County airport, said no one he has talked to at the TSA seems to understand the shortages of people and money that can exist in rural areas.

Trexler confirmed that observation yesterday. Asked if her agency had given any thought to providing extra assistance in rural communities, Trexler answered: “The number of law enforcement officers that are needed depends on the size of the airport and the number of checkpoints.”

And in La Plata County and Durango, the county seat, compliance with the directive is a personnel problem.

“There is a chance that compliance is just not possible here,” Brockus said. “Currently, between them, the Durango Police Department and the La Plata County Sheriff are short a total of 10 officers. It would take three more to man the airport.”

La Plata and Pitkin counties are both looking to the state to apply pressure on the feds. They are asking Gov. Bill Owens to keep the National Guard stationed at their airports until the TSA has its own security officers in place.

Pitkin County airport’s Elwood said that so far the TSA has been “noncommittal” about reimbursing the state if it chooses to keep the National Guard on duty at some airports.

Brockus added that he recently spoke with aviation officials in Wyoming, who report that they are also having trouble complying with the directive.

“We’re hardly unique – small airports all over the country are having trouble with this,” he said.

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