Jefferson County officials said that a Syracuse-based TSA administrators claims of fraud, waste and abuse at the Watertown International Airport are false.
According to an article in Tuesdays Syracuse Post-Standard, Wayne Sparks, TSAs administrative officer in Syracuse, claimed that his boss, Federal Security Director Daniel Liddell, repeatedly retaliated against him for complaining about fraud, waste and abuse at airports in the Syracuse region.
Among those complaints? An assertion from Mr. Sparks that the TSA is overpaying law enforcement personnel by at least $600,000 a year at the Watertown, Ogdensburg and Massena airports.
According to Mr. Sparks, the officers were being paid with TSA funds even when no one was working at those airports.
Its a scenario that Jefferson County officials find perplexing, to say the least.
They always sent us a schedule of when they needed security and we always supplied it, said Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Burns. There is absolutely no wrongdoing from this county at all. I dont know where its coming from.
Airport Manager James L. Lawrence said, These allegations are false. I am disappointed and discouraged with the Syracuse office for making such allegations or accusations without appropriate background and research into past reimbursable agreements for Watertown.
According to the countys contract with TSA, security screening by TSA employees cannot take place without a local law enforcement officer present. Because of this, TSA funds are awarded on an annual basis to cover the cost of staffing the airport.
The county entered its first agreement with TSA when it took over the airport in 2006.
The funds were generous and the requirements were more extensive at that time than they are now. Deputies were required to be present for screenings and conduct perimeter security. The airport accommodated three flights a day and deputies also were required to be present for both departures and arrivals.
Everything that was asked for was justifiable, Mr. Lawrence said.
Over time, the funds dwindled, requirements were reduced and flights dropped from three to two per day.
In 2011, TSA awarded Jefferson County more than $97,000 at a $29 hourly rate for reimbursement. This year, TSA awarded Jefferson County a little over $29,000 at a $20 hourly rate.
The county adjusted accordingly, according to Mr. Lawrence. Now, deputies typically work at the airport only four hours a day during the week and two hours a day on the weekends, when there are fewer flights. They arrive about an hour and a half before departures and leave after flights take off.
The county bills the TSA for reimbursement based on its hours of coverage. Under that system, and with funds steadily decreasing, county officials find the suggestion that they have been misusing funds bewildering.
This is reinforced by the fact that the county has received no official correspondence saying that it has done anything wrong.
Nobody from the TSA has contacted us, County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III said.
Mr. Sparkss comments came less than two weeks after Mr. Burns said that he would no longer be able to provide a sheriffs detail at the airport because of a manpower shortage and the Post-Standard article appeared on the same day that Jefferson County legislators were set to vote on a resolution renewing the countys contract with the TSA.
Permission to fill two vacant deputy positions was given after a week of public wrangling between the sheriff and the county Legislature, and legislators voted unanimously at Tuesday nights General Services Committee meeting to renew the TSA contract and accept the comparatively paltry sum of $29,000.
Asked if his department would continue to provide security at the airport, Undersheriff Paul W. Trudeau told the committee on Tuesday, The answer is going to be yes. Though I dont understand how they expect the county to do it with $29,000.
Massena Town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray, who runs the Massena International Airport, also was surprised by the allegations of waste.
No one has criticized what weve been doing. No one has said weve been doing anything wrong, he said.
Mr. Gray said that in his regular dealings with Mr. Sparks, he has not expressed those attitudes to me.
The Massena airport also has seen a drop in TSA funds. The airport used to be able to fund eight hours of police coverage but has reduced that to four.
The difference? Mr. Gray wants to discontinue a police presence at the airport altogether. With response times for the various law enforcement agencies in the area being less than four minutes, hes asking the TSA to treat Massena like other rural airports that dont need local law enforcement to be present for passenger screenings.
Mr. Gray points to the Saranac Lake airport as an example. Under the Albany TSA office, which Mr. Gray said is less strict than the Syracuse office, the Saranac Lake airport is able to run more efficiently and has fewer delays because it is not required to have local law enforcement present.
TSA officials did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday night.
In other airport-related activity, the Jefferson County General Services Committee approved a $128,800 Empire State Development grant to commission Passero Associates to undertake a study in preparation for a $1.2 million business center.
The center will be adjacent to a new hangar as part of the general aviation operations of the airport, which cater to private and business-owned aircraft and clientele.