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Authority: Funding cuts jeopardize air service

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OGDENSBURG — Though ridership has taken off at Ogdensburg International Airport, federal budget cuts could ground commercial passenger service at the facility.

The Transportation Security Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has reduced funding to help small airports provide law enforcement officers at passenger screenings.

At its Wednesday meeting, the Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority board of directors accepted a $43,800-per-year grant to pay for police presence at the airport, a reduction of almost 50 percent from previous funding levels near $86,000.

“The $50,000 has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is us,” said Wade A. Davis, OBPA executive director.

Currently, the Ogdensburg Police Department provides an officer for the screenings. With an already tight budget, the authority is unsure whether it can provide the additional funds, Vice Chairman Frederick J. Carter said.

“We can’t afford it anymore,” he said. “We have to budget for this money or we’re out of the passenger service. We have now hit a crisis; we need to sit down with the city and the TSA and work something out.”

At the Watertown International Airport, similar cuts are taking a toll, said James L. Lawrence Jr., Jefferson County highway superintendent and airport manager.

“We’ve seen a reduction and we’re working through that scenario in our present contract. There are some questions we are asking TSA,” he said. Unlike in previous contracts, the TSA did not reveal Watertown’s level of law enforcement officer funding.

“I can tell you at the present time we have seen a reduction in funding, from $28 an hour for law enforcement to $22,” Mr. Lawrence said. “I can also tell you they are in the arrears of paying us in the last few months.”

Mr. Lawrence said the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department provides law enforcement coverage for the airport.

“They are only reimbursed by the amount we are reimbursed from the TSA,” Mr. Lawrence said. “Until now, they have felt comfortable with those figures.”

There is no risk now that Watertown’s airport will shut down, Mr. Lawrence said.

Operators of Massena International Airport face the same problem, said Joseph D. Gray, Massena town supervisor.

“I don’t see the services being in jeopardy, but the TSA needs to wake up and smell the coffee,” he said. “They are unreasonable with the demands they are placing on us.”

Mr. Gray said Massena’s law enforcement officer funding was cut from more than $74,000 a year to less than $35,000.

“The bottom line is we lose money at the airport anyway, and this doesn’t help matters,” he said. “There is a potential impact on service.”

A Massena village police officer is present during screenings at the Massena airport.

Cape Air of Barnstable, Mass., serves the Ogdensburg and Massena airports with three incoming and departing flights each day.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the TSA required that a law enforcement officer be present while commercial passengers are screened at airports. To help smaller airports meet the requirement, the Law Enforcement Officer Reimbursement program was created, providing grants based on the number of flights and passengers moving through airports.

This year, the TSA changed the way it calculates the grants, reducing both the estimated number of hours an officer will have to work and the amount each officer will be paid.

Adding to the difficulty for Massena and Ogdensburg, flights often depart near shift changes for police departments, requiring overtime pay to staff the airports.

In Ogdensburg, the city and the OBPA split that cost. After the funding reduction, the authority wants the city to pay more.

“We’re still running the city’s airport,” Mr. Carter said. “They should be able to help us here, but they don’t want to give any financial support.”

Interim Ogdensburg City Manager Philip A. Cosmo said the city preferred to hold off negotiations until John M. Pinkerton, the new city manager, takes office later this month.

“We’ll be talking to them and taking a look at what the TSA has provided,” Mr. Cosmo said. “I’m sure we’re going to be able to come up with something.”

Mr. Carter said the TSA should be able to provide its own security.

“They have the training and the staff already there at the airport,” he said. “The TSA can do this for themselves.”

A law enforcement presence might not be necessary at the airports, Massena’s Mr. Gray said. “Is there a need to have an officer standing by while passengers are being screened?” he said.

Mr. Gray said he knows of at least one north country airport that does not keep an officer present during passenger screening, but he would not say which one.

The OBPA may discontinue using Ogdensburg officers for airport security and instead send a request for proposals, thus alleviating the burden of overtime payments.

If a solution isn’t found, the OBPA no longer will operate commercial aviation at the Ogdensburg International Airport, Mr. Carter said.

Cape Air officials did not return calls for comment Thursday.

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