By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
Warning to a county official in charge of Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport: Woe unto you who hurt the tender feelings of small airlines under the protection of Broward County commissioner Lori Parrish -- especially those represented by lobbyists who contribute to her election campaigns.
Parrish anointed herself the patron saint of tiny airlines at the commission's public hearing on the county budget last month. For the new budget, the Department of Aviation had proposed charging airlines 41 percent higher rent at the terminals, to help pay for airport expansion. That was part of an overall 19 percent hike in airport charges, including gate and landing fees. The increases had already been approved by the major airlines that have long-term contracts with the airport. At a budget workshop in August, none of the commissioners objected. And not one of the noncontracting, smaller airlines, which don't get to vote on rates, complained to the county after being notified on September 3.
At the hearing on September 28, the commission was expected to give routine approval to this and hundreds of other provisions in the laboriously crafted, $1.9 billion budget. But suddenly, out of nowhere, Saint Lori, Protector of Small Airlines, roared into action.
"Suppose you got 25 days' notice of a 37 percent [sic] increase in your household budget," she cried. "Or you run a business and you get 25 days' notice that you must pass along a 37 percent increase to your customers. It's impossible to notify your customers in time and prepare new rates." In high dudgeon she moved to postpone a decision on the new fees for a week, until aviation officials met with the smaller carriers to see if they had any problems with the new schedule. "Maybe they need more time," she explained. The small carriers might have a "special set of circumstances," she worried, and "didn't get enough of a heads up to manage their budgets."
Parrish, joined by commissioners John Rodstrom and Kristin Jacobs, berated aviation director Bill Sherry for an hour over his alleged insensitivity to the small carriers, while commissioner Scott Cowan defended him.
"It's not fair," Parrish lectured. "It's not the way you do business." Getting nowhere, the commissioners deferred further discussion of the airport-fee issue until their evening session that day. Then they resumed their attacks on Sherry, who was cut off each time he tried to respond. Sherry, who took over as aviation director in July of last year and has been praised by the commissioners in the past, argued that the smaller carriers received as much notice this year as they've gotten in previous years. He also noted that, even with the rate increases, the airport costs are still the second lowest in the state -- far below West Palm Beach, Fort Myers, Orlando, and Miami.
County attorney Edward Dion finally cut off the debate with a chilling warning. If the commissioners didn't approve the rate increase immediately, he said, they would violate the county's bond covenants and jeopardize Broward's bond rating, since the county wouldn't have enough revenues to pay off the bonds. Parrish grudgingly agreed to vote for the fee hike -- but not before taking a parting shot at Sherry. "It was a poor decision not to notify all of the [airlines]," she said. "Bill couldn't be that dumb to do that again next year." Seeing the look on Sherry's face, she tried to dig herself out. "I'm not trying to make you mad; it's kind of a joke."
This type of sniping and second-guessing by commissioners is part of what prompted Broward-area state legislators to push for an elected mayor to run the county, which the public will vote on in March. "What's happening with the present commission form of government is a lot of micromanagement," says Sen. Skip Campbell (D-Tamarac). Other critics contend that this is partly to blame for the departure this year of several respected Broward department heads, including the mass-transit and environmental-services chiefs.
It's hard to imagine Parrish pressing so hard to give ordinary taxpayers extra time to help them "manage their budgets." But the small airlines have something that most deadbeat taxpayers lack -- the support of a big national corporation, Hudson General, and its politically connected lawyer-lobbyist John Milledge. Hudson General and Milledge gave at least $4000 to Parrish and her fellow commissioners for their last election campaigns, according to county records. Milledge is a major Broward Democratic Party fundraiser, who, with Parrish's support, was a top candidate last year for the position of Broward County Attorney.
Hudson General manages ground operations at the Broward airport for 12 airlines. After receiving notice of the rent increase, the company had Milledge contact the commissioners to complain, says Charles Larmony, Hudson's general manager. The combined increase for all of Hudson's customers amounted to just $25,000 a year. Hudson's beef was not that this was unreasonable, only that it received notice too late to figure the increase into its annual budget and too late to raise the October rent for its customers. Larmony met with county aviation officials on September 27 and reached an agreement that the county would provide more-advance notice of rate changes next year. Parrish, however, says she didn't know before the September 28 public hearing about the agreement, which made her Sherry-bashing performance gratuitous.