critical survival test
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AUG. 17, 2003 - - A budding brouhaha over how involved the state
should be with aviation can be simplified by looking at the grass
More than likely, you haven't ever given two seconds of thought
about the height of grass at airports, but it's more important than
you might think.
If the grass gets too high, it can cover runway lights. In turn,
pilots can't see well when landing at night, which increases the
risk of accidents. As grass gets taller, it goes to seed, which
causes more birds in the runway area. That's a safety concern because
birds can hit planes and cause accidents.
Now enter the state of South Carolina. For years, the state has
sent special mowing teams to South Carolina's 58 smaller general
aviation airports. These teams are equipped with special radios
to allow mowers to listen to incoming planes so they can get out
of the way. Teams also inspect runways and the adjacent runway apron
But in this year of savage budget cuts, the state hasn't been sending
mowing teams to local airports. As government agencies, such as
the state Department of Commerce, go through internal restructuring
to save money, create efficiencies and question missions, there
are a lot of folks worried sick about what's going to happen.
With aviation, pilots and airplane enthusiasts believe Gov. Mark
Sanford and his folks at Commerce are on the verge of shutting down
the Aeronautics Division, which facilitates federal airport grant
funding, flies state officials, provides maintenance to airport
facilities and more. In short, they're upset the state has stopped
mowing grass and believe it's going to get worse.
"I am convinced that left unchallenged, the Department of
Commerce will eviscerate the Division of Aeronautics," said
Jim Hamilton, former chairman of the S.C. Aeronautics Commission.
"A strong Division of Aeronautics is vital to our state's airports'
survival. It is extremely important to our economic development,
our access to the national air transportation system and to compete
for 90 percent federal matching funds."
Hamilton was fired as chair of an aeronautics advisory committee
by Commerce Secretary Bob Faith at the end of July - - about a week
after the committee unveiled a scathing report of the department.
The report said the department slowly has been dismantling the Aeronautics
Division over the last two years (the Hodges and Sanford administrations)
and "seems to be ignoring their legislated mandate to oversee
the safety and maintenance of these state assets." The report
said funding was inadequate to meet basic safety needs at general
Meanwhile, the department is wondering things like why its Aeronautics
Division has even been in the business of cutting grass. It is eying
the agency and its $1.4 million budget to determine why it is doing
what it is doing and whether the state needs to be performing those
Faith says no decisions have been made about the future of the
"Anybody saying they know what we are going to do is just
lying and speculating," he said. "People with good business
sense" are gathering information and exploring more cost-effective
ways for Aeronautics to perform its missions, including "partnering,
outsourcing, cost-sharing, personnel-sharing and any other creative,
innovative method to save tax dollars." By October, the review
should be finished, he said.
In other words, Aeronautics, like many other agencies in state
government today, is caught in the middle of a conflict of political
Does the state continue to provide certain services because there's
a real responsibility to do those functions? Or, does the state
spin off those functions to local governments or private contractors
who might be able to perform those services?
Faith admits the division probably will look differently a year
"I would imagine we'll find some better, cheaper, faster ways
of doing things and if you are in the process today, that's unsettling."
Although Faith has an October deadline, state lawmakers may have
the final say. Several reportedly will try to move Aeronautics to
the state Department of Transportation - - the agency that's home
to every other state's non-stand-alone aeronautics departments.
Regardless of what happens, the grass at small airports will keep
growing. It's just common sense to make sure it gets cut - - particularly
by specially-trained people who know what to do to keep the airports