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TSA confirms Jefferson County did not waste money at airport

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The federal Transportation Security Administration has confirmed that Jefferson County officials were in the right when they cried foul on Tuesday after a TSA administrator in Syracuse made allegations of fraud, waste and abuse at Watertown International Airport.

The statement, which came via email from the TSA’s Office of Public Affairs, began simply, “The allegations of overpayments are false,” and confirmed much of what county officials already had said about their arrangement with the TSA, which includes providing a sheriff’s deputy to conduct security operations at the airport.

Those security operations initially were more extensive and the county received more funds from the TSA when the contract began in 2006, the year the county took over the airport from the city of Watertown.

At the time, deputies could work at the airport for up to 12 hours a day, conducting perimeter security and assisting with passenger screening for three flights a day.

That information was corroborated by the statement from TSA: “When TSA was created, funding was made available for local law enforcement officers to conduct security operations at airports. Those activities were flexible and included patrolling the airport perimeters, the terminals, the sterile side of the checkpoint, the parking facilities and other security activities.”

As time went by, however, requirements were reduced. Now deputies work at the airport for about four hours a day during the week and two hours a day on weekends, when there are fewer flights. The county’s share of TSA reimbursement also has dwindled. In 2011, the county was paid more than $97,000. This year, that sum is a little more than $29,000.

The TSA also confirmed that trend: “In more recent years, as funding became more limited, the scope and terms of the security operations that local law enforcement officers are to conduct were clarified. Now funds are used when local law enforcement officers are staffing the checkpoints.”

“I’m very pleased with the TSA,” said James L. Lawrence, airport manager. “Knowing that the allegations were false, I applaud the TSA for recognizing and acknowledging that. Hopefully we can put this behind us and continue to work well together into the future.”

County officials forcefully denied the allegations after an article appeared Tuesday in the Syracuse Post-Standard in which Wayne Sparks, TSA’s administrative officer in Syracuse, claimed that his boss, Federal Security Director Daniel Liddell, was retaliating against him for making complaints about “fraud, waste and abuse at airports in the Syracuse region,” including a complaint that the TSA had overpaid law enforcement officers at the Watertown, Ogdensburg and Massena airports by at least $600,000 a year.

Security screening by TSA employees cannot take place without a local law enforcement officer present. That requirement, along with the reduction in reimbursement funds, has put municipalities in difficult positions.

Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority Executive Wade A. Davis said that Ogdensburg International Airport has two contracts: an $86,000 contract with the city of Ogdensburg to provide police officers at the airport, and a $23,000 contract with the TSA for reimbursement.

The TSA funding used to be more substantial. Now, the difference between the costs of having police officers at the airport and what the OBPA is reimbursed is covered by taxpayers. The OBPA has been in discussions with the TSA to try to figure out how to maintain security requirements under tightening fiscal constraints.

The allegations appearing in the newspaper were unexpected and alarming and sent staff clambering to sort through old files to make sure the claims were unfounded.

Mr. Sparks’s allegations also came as a surprise to Mr. Davis.

“Normally, any correspondence we have comes directly from the TSA,” Mr. Davis said.

According to Mr. Davis, Ogdensburg police officers fill out official TSA report forms when they go on and off duty to keep track of when they are at the airport.

Mr. Davis said he discovered that those reports are “passed on to the TSA and signed, in many cases by Mr. Sparks.”

Massena Town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray, who runs the Massena International Airport, is lobbying the TSA to get rid of the local law enforcement requirement at his airport altogether.

With several law enforcement entities in the area capable of a rapid response to an emergency situation at the airport, stationing officers there for passenger screenings is costly and unnecessary, Mr. Gray said.

Two weeks ago, Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Burns threatened to stop sending deputies to the Watertown airport after the retirement of a deputy left him with a manpower shortage.

The county’s original contract with TSA allowed it to hire four additional deputies.

As funds have decreased, the county has become reluctant to fill vacancies.

The rolls had depleted to pre-airport days before the county authorized the hiring of two deputies after a week of public complaints by the sheriff.

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