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City Says Airport Books Inaccurate, Incomplete

Julie Rose

An audit by the city of Charlotte has turned up a number of missing, incomplete or inaccurate documents on the airport's books that may pose a problem for federal aviation authorities. The findings are part of a series of ongoing audits into airport operations spurred by the city's fight to keep control of Charlotte Douglas International.

You might think all of this digging into the minutiae of airport management is an attempt by city officials to discredit former aviation director Jerry Orr. And you might be right.

But City Manager Ron Carlee say he's merely out to make sure Charlotte-Douglas is the best-run airport in the country, and if the navel-gazing turns up some lint, so be it.

"I think there was a lack of diligence, a lack of focusing . . .obsessively on the details," says Carlee.

There's no evidence of intentional wrongdoing, says Carlee, but he says the airport has apparently been charging a couple of city departments far less rent than it should have for facilities located on airport property – namely a dog pound for the city's animal control office and a hangar for CMPD's helicopter.

Both leases date back decades and, in both cases, airport staff say the actual acreage of the property is several times larger than the figure recorded in official documents.  That's a potential problem for the FAA, since federal regulation requires airports charge fair-market value for all non-aviation-related uses of airport property. 

Violations could trigger penalties, says Carlee. Implicit in his message is that Jerry Orr should have kept a better handle on the details: "From what I'm seeing, I think the airport grew so rapidly and so much, that a number of the systems have not caught up."

All the more reason for the city to maintain oversight of the airport, says Carlee, who is an outspoken opponent of the push to place Charlotte Douglas under the control of a regional commission.

Jerry Orr, on the other hand, says the facilities in question were not his idea to begin with, but rather an example of the very meddling by city officials that prompted the push to strip the airport from city control.

"I think we were influenced to do things we wouldn't normally go out and do, but I don't think the FAA will have any problem with it, at all," says Orr.

He says the leases he eventually agreed to were above-board. And he questions the new acreage measurements the aviation department has made in his absence, noting he comes from a long line of land surveyors.

"My people have been surveying here since 1830," says Orr. While the aviation department may now estimate at 5.9 acres the property being leased by the Animal Care and Control, Orr stands by the two acres indicated in airport documents.

Had the city called him up, Orr says he could have easily explained the discrepancies uncovered in the audit – including a lack of FAA documentation about the leases.

"My experience with the FAA has been that they can't find things," says Orr. "Ask the questions and give me access to the records, and I'm quite certain I can answer them quite satisfactorily, to anybody."

But instead, Orr has been entirely cut out of airport operations since his forced resignation in July. He's still being paid, though, because he's technically the director of the airport commission, which the city of Charlotte has sued to block from taking charge at the airport. It'll take a judge's order to put Orr back in power.

"Obviously I want run the airport, so every day that I’m not there to run the airport, I think, is a day lost," says Orr.

Or, in city manager Carlee's view, it's: "a new era of cooperation and a new era of transparency."

Either way, it's definitely another day, another round of bickering over control of the airport.