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    A Times Editorial

    What's that smell?

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 11, 2002

    Each time St. Petersburg residents get a whiff of operations at Albert Whitted Airport, something smells, and it isn't the sewer plant next door.

    City residents own the airport land, runways and all of the permanent buildings, and they lease some of that property to Bay Air Flying Service. Yet Bay Air refuses to provide information about who subleases hangars and other space from the company. The information is vital as the city tries to determine the airport's future, so Bay Air's secrecy raises a troubling question. What does it have to hide?

    But the outrageous behavior doesn't end there in this odoriferous affair. City residents are also being sold out by one of the people they elected to protect their interests. City Council member Bill Foster takes Bay Air's side. He doesn't care who subleases city property. After all, Foster says, they're "actively engaged in commerce in St. Pete."

    So in Foster's mind, anyone can shortchange the city and refuse to answer to taxpayers for their use of city property, and it's all right with him as long as it's being done in the name of "commerce." No wonder the small group of airport supporters have found it so easy to take advantage of the city for so long.

    Actually, the information about subleases at the airport could be very revealing of what is going on there. Setting aside for the moment safety issues, here are some of the questions that might be answered:

    Are the airport tenants all city residents? If not, do the non-residents pay a higher price for the privilege of housing their airplanes or businesses at tax-supported Albert Whitted?

    Are the land and buildings being used to generate the highest possible return on the city's investment, or is the airport operated for the convenience of its cozy fraternity of pilots?

    Mayor Rick Baker has taken a business-like approach to Albert Whitted. He has allowed his staff to consider other uses for airport land. One proposal would return much of the 110 acres to the public as a waterfront park and develop some of the remaining land for housing, which would revitalize downtown and boost the city's tax base.

    Soon, the airport will be a drain on the city budget. The projected budget for 2003 has the airport running an operating loss of $277,000. That means taxpayers will have to pick up the bill for those mysterious tenants at Albert Whitted. Perhaps that is council member Foster's idea of "commerce," but he should forgive city taxpayers if they hold their noses.

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