September 24, 2008

County Council to Consider Reviving Aviation Department to Oversee Airports

By Tim Puko

Some Allegheny County leaders are looking to seize control of Pittsburgh International Airport.

A proposal to be considered tonight by County Council would revive the county Department of Aviation to oversee Pittsburgh International and Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin.

County officials have been at odds this month with the county Airport Authority about gas drilling rights on land at the airports that could reap millions of dollars.

"This authority is so out of control, they're leasing rights they don't even know they own, and they don't even know the county owns," said county Councilman Chuck McCullough, R-Upper St. Clair, who is cosponsoring the ordinance with Councilman Bill Robinson, D-Hill District. "If you want to take politics out of running the airport, you take it away from the authority. Authorities are nothing more than political pork."

The authority's lawyer says McCullough's plan is illegal. For any authority with debt, state law allows only the authority board to dissolve itself, attorney Jeffrey W. Letwin said. Technically, the McCullough-Robinson proposal only would take away the authority's power over airport facilities and land.

"I'm surprised to hear that it would get any support from anyone other than Mr. McCullough," Letwin said. "It's ridiculous. You have a board of highly qualified people with stunning reputations in their walks of life."

"I think it would be a mistake. But, council has its own prerogatives," said Glenn R. Mahone, who has served as chairman for most of the Airport Authority's nine years of existence.

McCullough, with his fellow Republicans on council, has sparred with the authority throughout the year about its chairman, debt and decisions. The authority still has $543 million in debt, and Republicans have been publicly critical of the airport's financial management.

The latest conflict occurred when airport officials put out a request for proposals to drill for natural gas on 9,300 acres under the commercial airport in Findlay and the West Mifflin airport. County Chief Executive Dan Onorato halted the plan, saying airport executives did not take input from him and County Council.

"I think that probably made a few council members maybe take another look at the (governing) structure out there," said Council President Rich Fitzgerald, D-Squirrel Hill, who noted he has yet to make a decision on the bill. "I think there's probably a sentiment that says elected officials should be setting policy."

Airport land is owned by the county, but administered by the authority, a quasi-independent board of nine Onorato appointees. It was created in 1999, before County Council existed, in what was described publicly as an attempt to improve efficiency and remove politics from the day-to-day decision making of airport officials.

The idea to abolish the authority was discussed several times this year on council's Government Reform Committee, said Fitzgerald, the committee chair. McCullough and five other council members sought studies of the three county authorities earlier this year to see if dissolving or privatizing them would be effective. That request is still in committee, McCullough said.

McCullough said he created this plan five years ago when he was a county lawyer in the administration of then-county Chief Executive Jim Roddey.

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