Sunday, April 17, 2016

Vance Brand Airport (KLMO) manager investigates missing Mile-Hi drop zone fees: Report leads to mowing agreement, which raises billing questions

David Slayter, Vance Brand Airport (KLMO) manager.

Following comments from area residents at Tuesday's Longmont City Council meeting, city staff have investigated an agreement where the city accepted in-kind mowing services in lieu of $7,500 from Mile-Hi Skydiving for use of a drop zone.

Kimberly Gibbs, founder of the Citizens for Quiet Skies group, and another member of the group, Ray Cooper, told the council that Mile-Hi did not pay for the use of the drop zone to the south of the airport.

A city ordinance says people who use the drop zone, a public area of the airport, should retain a permit and pay a fee. The annual fee was set at $7,500 in 2007 and was supposed to increase with the area Consumer Price Index.

The comments prompted Vance Brand Municipal Airport Manager David Slayter to investigate the issue last week, interviewing former city staffmember Don Bessler, former airport manager Tim Barth, Mile-Hi Skydiving owner Frank Casares and former city manager Gordon Pedrow in the process.

Barth, Bessler and Casares all alluded to an agreement made at some point around 2009 in which the drop zone fee for Casares's company Mile-Hi Skydiving was waived in exchange for in-kind mowing services. Pedrow said he never heard of any such agreement, according to Slayter's report.

From there, things get murky.

'Verbal agreement'

Both Barth and Casares remembered it as a verbal agreement while Bessler said he didn't know about the drop zone fee waiver "or he would have told Tim (Barth) to put it into writing," according to Slayter's summary of their interviews.

Casares clarified to the Times-Call that he owns two companies — Mile-Hi Skydiving Center and Mile-Hi Airport Services. Casares' skydiving company maintained the drop zone in exchange for the waiver of the $7,500 fee while the airport services company had a separate agreement with the city to mow the airport property, Casares said.

Mile-Hi Skydiving Center "filled in the ditches, removed the barb wire fences throughout (the drop zone property, graded it, seeded it, and mowed it. There was never any cost to the city for any of that maintenance. It was deemed by staff at the time to waive the fee in lieu of that maintenance if MHSC maintained it since it would cost the city more than the annual fee," Casares wrote in an email.

Casares insisted that the in-kind agreement for the drop zone maintenance had nothing to do with the contract Mile-Hi Airport Services secured through a request for proposals process.

Gibbs sent an open records request to the city in 2014, asking questions about Mile-Hi's use of the drop zone without paying the fees.

Then-Airport Manager Tim Barth responded to Gibbs, citing other reasons the city was not charging Mile-Hi for their use of the drop zone.

First, Barth said then, the city could not charge only Mile-Hi for their use of the land because other aviators including hot air balloonists and ultralight pilots used it. A Federal Aviation Administration regulation prohibits airports that receive federal grants from unfairly discriminating against any one type of business.

Related, Barth told Gibbs at the time, he was a one-man shop and he couldn't be expected to "effectively oversee all the operations that take place on the south side of the airport ... There simply is not enough manpower to provide sufficient oversight and charge every person that uses the south side of the airport."

Slayter said the in-kind agreement itself isn't necessarily a problem and in fact they are sometimes used at airports. The documentation, however, is a bigger problem.

"You can do an in-kind service if the amount of work the city's receiving from that service is at least equal to what you're changing that out for," said Slayter, who previously worked as the executive director of the Houma-Terrebonne Airport Commission in Houma, La. "But how it's documented — it could have been done better. My understanding is that it was all verbal."

Slayter said his understanding from the interviews he conducted, the in-kind agreement was made in the first place because there were problems with the airport's maintenance budget.

"The airport would run out of money before the airport could do things the airport needed done and that would cut into the maintenance contract," Slayter said.

Barth, who is now the director of aviation at the Cheyenne, Wyo. airport. He did not return a request for comment from the Times-Call confirming Slayter's report.

Mowing hours

While Casares said they are not connected, Slayter pulled all the invoices for mowing that Mile-Hi Airport Services charged the city from 2011 to 2014 and noticed that the invoices seemed vastly short for mowing the whole airport property.

Mile-Hi Airport Services charged $60 an hour for the services.

In 2015, the airport contracted with Terry Kramer of Kramer Lawn Services to mow the airport property (minus the drop zone and another Mile-Hi leased property) at a rate of $30 an hour for the services. In total, Kramer billed the city 372 hours for the year.

Casares' Mile-Hi Airport Services, however, billed the city between 90 and 196 hours per year to mow the same area Kramer handled in 2015, Slayter found from the invoices.

For discussion purposes, Slayter assumed that Mile-Hi Airport Services could do the same work 50 hours faster than Kramer. Still, Slayter surmised that there was $40,446 in mowing work that Mile-Hi didn't charge the city for, which is more than the $7,500 drop zone fee.

"Based on the aforementioned analysis, it does appear that Mile-Hi (Airport Services) was not billing for the total hours required to maintain the areas designated in the mowing contract," Slayter concluded his report to the council.

Casares, however, said there was a simple explanation for why Mile-Hi Airport Services billed the city fewer hours than the current mowing contractor.

Mile-Hi Airport Services has a 15-foot mower behind a tractor while Kramer has 6-foot mower, Casares said. The larger mower allowed Mile-Hi to mow faster. Plus, the weather contributed.

"Last year it stayed green all summer thus more mowing would be required. There have been years where half the summer there wasn't much need to mow," Casares wrote in an email.

Moving forward

Mile-Hi Skydiving was billed the $7,500 drop zone fee plus the CPI increase in both 2014 and 2015 and paid those bills in 2015 and 2016, Slayter and City Manager Harold Dominguez said.

Slayter said he told Casares that the in-kind agreement couldn't continue.

"I met with Frank about it and told him the way I manage and the way I look at things is that we need him to invoice us for the work done so we can pay him for that and he needs to pay what he needs to pay on the annual permit fees," Slayter said, adding that he won't be setting up in-kind agreements to cover a budget hole. "If I can't afford to pay you, I'm not going to have you do it."

As far as what occurred in terms of what Slayter considers insufficient hours billed and the past in-kind agreement documentation, Dominguez said the city is in talks with the city attorney's office and did not go into further detail.

The city attorney's office will provide the City Council with a legal assessment on those matters, Slayter wrote.

Cooper, the member of Citizens for Quiet Skies, said via email he is still skeptical of the entire issue.

"I am a homeowner who pays taxes and follows the rules. I don't think I could ever reduce what I owe the city through a verbal agreement. So I have to ask what is going on at the airport? Is there a set of city rules there that are enforced differently than for the rest of us in the city?" Cooper said. "There are a lot of questions. "

Original article can be found here:

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