August 1, 2008

Airport’s Snow Plows Draw Federal Curiosity

By Mike Cherney, The Sun News, Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Aug. 1--A federal office charged with investigating misuse of public money is suggesting the Federal Aviation Administration look into whether Horry County is properly using snow removal trucks at Myrtle Beach International Airport that were purchased with federal cash.

Brian Dettelbach, an assistant inspector general with the Department of Transportation, said his office would be referring the matter to the FAA for review but had yet to do so. A spokeswoman for the FAA said the agency would look at the inspector general's information when it is received.

This is the second time recently the office has been involved with the airport. A March report found no evidence of criminal activity during the county's failed bid to build a new westside terminal last year, but said the FAA could have provided better oversight.

The FAA agreed to give the county about $355,000 in 2005 for a dump truck, two pickup trucks and several snow plows. The county says it is following FAA guidelines for the equipment, despite using some of the trucks for general maintenance.

The FAA inspected the equipment earlier this year in response to the March report by the inspector general's office. Marcia Adams, the FAA spokeswoman, said Thursday the equipment was not being used inappropriately when it was inspected this spring.

The equipment was received in late 2006, said Lisa Bourcier, Horry County spokeswoman. By the end of July this year, one pickup truck logged 15,262 miles, another logged 16,764 miles and the dump truck logged 2,098 miles.

Acquisition of the trucks through FAA grants must be based solely on snow removal needs, an FAA memo said. But the April memo also said the agency was expanding the allowed uses of FAA-funded snow removal equipment at airports.

According to the new guidelines, the equipment can also be used for removing debris or grass build-up on runway edges so the equipment does not sit idle during the warmer months of the year.

"We've never gotten any indication from the FAA that the uses my staff is using the equipment for is inappropriate," said Bob Kemp, the county airport director. "I'm not aware of there being anything that we are doing that the FAA has told us we can't do."

Kemp also pointed out that when it applied to the FAA for the money for the equipment, the county never said the equipment would be used exclusively for snow removal.

The trucks would allow the county to "better maintain runway conditions with airport staff in most adverse winter conditions," the application says, but does not explicitly mention other uses.

The county sent a letter to Anthony Cochran, a program manager with the FAA, in February requesting permission to use the trucks for maintenance activities, such as transporting materials to and from the three other airports the county manages.

The letter asked for a response if there was a problem with the request and none was received, Kemp said. Cochran referred questions to the FAA's communications department.

It has snowed 17 times in the past 43 years in the Myrtle Beach area, according to the S.C. State Climatology Office. The chance of snowfall is 26 percent annually. Temperatures drop below freezing an average of 44 days each year.

Doug Decker, a retired engineer who lives in Pawleys Island, first brought the snow removal equipment to the attention of the inspector general's office. He said the county should have been more clear about the planned use for the trucks when it applied for the grant money.

"To me, this is so glaring," said Decker, a frequent critic of the county's airport management.

Contact MIKE CHERNEY at 444-1765.


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