Aeronautics facing critical survival test
By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report



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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 along runways.

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 land.

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 aviation airports.

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 roles.

Faith says no decisions have been made about the future of the division.

"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 philosophy:

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 from now.

"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 safe.


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