Pitco awaits word on airport
May 7, 2002
Federal officials are expected to address problems that small airports such as Sardy Field are having with Friday’s deadline to replace the National Guard with local police.Pitkin County officials were expecting a directive from the Transportation Safety Administration yesterday, but there had been no word from the federal agency by 5 p.m.The contents of the upcoming directive are of particular interest to Pitkin County. The commissioners have refused to enter into an agreement with the TSA that would shift most of the costs for armed security from the federal government to local taxpayers and travelers.Carrington Brown, director of security at Pitkin County airport, said TSA officials have not given any hint about the contents of the new directive, so nobody is sure whether it will actually help small airports continue to have armed security.”We don’t know what it’s going to say or if it’s going to help,” Brown said.The TSA was formed last November. A number of highly publicized security breaches in major airports convinced Congress and the Bush administration of the need for a new agency specifically charged with securing the nation’s transportation infrastructure.On April 1, the new agency informed airport administrators that it intended to withdraw the National Guard units that have been providing security since last fall.Eventually, the TSA plans to place its own guards in airports throughout the nation, but contacts there have said large numbers of trained security guards may not be dispatched until the fall or winter of 2003. In the meantime, communities are required to staff airport checkpoints with trained police officers.The TSA has promised partial reimbursement of the costs, but a number of facilities – including Aspen, Durango and Laramie, Wyo. – have said they will not be able to comply with the April 1 directive.A TSA spokesman told The Aspen Times last week that a number of small airports around the country have said they are having trouble complying with the directive because they lack the money or manpower. Spokesman Paul Turk added that the April 1 directive has the force of law behind it and that it is possible commercial airports that do not come into compliance will be shut down.In a May 2 letter to TSA’s aviation operations division, Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper, the commission chairwoman, outlined the financial and manpower problems that the community has in complying with the shift in responsibility.Clapper notes in the letter that while Aspen is one of the nation’s most affluent communities, the county government, which owns and operates the airport, is in the middle of a budget crisis.”Taking into account poor tourist sector revenues and state and local taxation limitations, Pitkin County forecasts a $1 million shortfall in its $17 million general fund budget for 2002,” Clapper wrote. “In January the County eliminated approximately 3 percent of its work force and initiated a 5 percent reduction in operations expenditures.”The letter continues by pointing out that the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office normally has three deputies deployed throughout the county on any given day, fewer in the event of a major crime or natural disaster, such as a wildfire.”The Sheriff’s statutory responsibilities cannot be reduced because of the [TSA’s] mandate. Ultimately, it is obvious that the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office does not have the staff to meet the [mandate],” Clapper wrote.She also pointed out that most law enforcement officers who work in the county and its three incorporated jurisdictions – Aspen, Basalt and Snowmass Village – live 20 to 75 miles away from the airport, which makes staffing the airport with off-duty officers a challenge, especially over a long period of time.Sheriff Bob Braudis said he will not be able to keep the airport staffed unless he can offer off-duty officers more than standard overtime pay. He has offered to man the sole security checkpoint at Sardy Field for up to 14 hours a day at a rate of $75 an hour. So far the TSA has refused to reimburse the county more than $31 an hour, which isn’t enough to cover regular overtime pay for most law enforcement officers here.The letter also provides a number of solutions that would allow the county airport to remain secure. They include:-leave the National Guard in place, with the TSA covering 100 percent of the cost;-replace the Guard with federal law enforcement officers in Aspen on May 10;-reauthorize the flexible response system in place prior to Sept. 11, which allows the checkpoint to function without full-time armed security, requiring the sheriff’s office to respond to emergency calls within a certain time limit;-issue a waiver to Pitkin County;-or, reimburse the county for the full $75-an-hour cost of providing local cops at security checkpoints.