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Georgia lawmakers mull over making big changes to Aviation Authority

Less than two years after Georgia consolidated its aircraft management, lawmakers are weighing legislation that would narrow the scope of the Georgia Aviation Authority and restore the Georgia State Patrol aviation unit.

The House recently approved a bill that would strip the nascent authority of its primary duty: assisting law enforcement agencies across the state when emergencies call for aerial support.

Flying under the radar, House Bill 414 generated little discussion and drew minimal opposition in the House, passing 145-16. If the bill becomes law, state patrol aircraft and employees transferred to the authority in 2009 would be returned this summer to the Department of Public Safety.

Supporters say the bill would cut unnecessary red tape from an essential element of public safety. Opponents, meanwhile, question the logic of decentralizing the state’s fleet, and worry the bill might reduce transparency in state business flights.

Rep. Timothy J. Bearden, the chief sponsor of the bill and a former police officer, said the state patrol should not have been required to turn over its aircraft in the first place. He added that no other state “does it the way we’re doing it.”

“Public safety is not something that can be a scheduled flight,” said Bearden, R-Villa Rica. “If a small child is lost or you’re looking for an Alzheimer’s patient or escaped prisoner, you don’t need to be going through a second layer of bureaucracy.”

Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said his organization supports Bearden’s bill, even though it lauded the creation of the Georgia Aviation Authority.

“I’ve heard in some cases there’s another call or two that’s got to be made now, and that may have delayed a response,” Norris said of emergency flights. “We never were really for moving the aviation division because we thought we got good support out of state patrol.”

Bill Spitler, executive director of the Georgia Aviation Authority, said he has not received any complaints of delays and added many law enforcement officers still contact the pilots directly during emergencies.

“That was one of my goals when I came in: We don’t want to change anything that’s working,” said Spitler, who is retiring at the end of the month.

In cross-training pilots for multi-purpose flights, Spitler said the authority has increased requirements for pilots by adding instrument ratings and establishing weather minimums for flights. Spitler said House Bill 414 would eliminate a “cross-pollination” of professional pilots and trained troopers that has been valuable to the authority and the state.

“The state patrol has a deep culture -- almost like a marine-type culture -- but that has its drawbacks,” said Spitler, who retired from the U.S. Coast Guard and was chief pilot for General Motors before joining the authority. “People don’t like the change. We didn’t do change very fast. We took our time and tried to do what was right.”

The Georgia State Patrol declined to comment on the legislation. A spokeswoman for Gov. Nathan Deal also declined comment.

The Authority

The Georgia Aviation Authority was created in 2009 by Senate Bill 85. Then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, an aviation enthusiast, had long supported an effort to centralize the state’s flight operations and considered the bill’s passage a victory.

The authority had been recommended by a Commission for a New Georgia task force, which concluded in 2006 that the state could save money by merging dozens of planes and helicopters operated by several state agencies. The Department of Transportation, Department of Public Safety, Georgia Forestry Commission and Department of Natural Resources maintained separate fleets at the time that lacked standard safety and maintenance policies.

The authority was designed to apply a business model to aviation operations by reducing staff and surplus aircraft and implementing a user billing process to recoup costs -- goals Spitler said have been achieved.

Fifty-five aircraft were transferred to the authority in July 2009. As of last week, the inventory had been reduced to 39, and one helicopter was sold as recently as Thursday morning. The authority now has 19 helicopters, 16 single-engine aircraft and four multi-engine turboprop planes.

“We’re trying to get it down to the most efficient number possible,” Spitler said.

Proceeds from sales have been used to upgrade the state’s aging fleet. When the authority was formed, Spitler said one helicopter he climbed inside was so old that it did not have safety harnesses. Those aircraft have since been modernized with devices like GPS and terrain awareness and warning systems.

The authority’s efforts have been studied by other states seeking to shave aviation costs at a time of financial turmoil. In a report released this month, a special staff unit of the Florida Legislature cited the Georgia Aviation Authority as a possible model for centralizing aircraft management.

“The authority’s director estimates that it saved the state $500,000 in its first year of operation and expects additional long-term savings through continued downsizing, standardizing of the air fleet, and through cross-training of staff,” the report states. “Specifically, all pilots are now certified law enforcement officers and are on call to respond to any aviation need, from dropping water on fires to criminal surveillance.”

If Bearden’s bill passes, Spitler said the authority would still be responsible for fire patrol and suppression and would conduct various surveys and other duties. “Some of our primary customers would be the Department of Economic Development,” he said.

The legislation

Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn, a co-sponsor of House Bill 414, said the authority has not lived up to its promise that it would be become self-sustaining.

“We were under the impression and had been told that by combining all of the services together under one umbrella, it would create significant cost savings,” England said. “As time has proven, that has not been the case.”

England said he did not know whether the legislation would save taxpayer money. He said one upside of the legislation is that the state patrol could use money derived from drug forfeitures to make repairs and upgrades to its fleet.

Spitler, meanwhile, said he opposes the bill because “it isn’t the right thing for the state.”

“If you look at the facts, it makes no sense to dismantle,” he added.

Though the data are “kind of scattered,” Spitler said flights for public officials have become more expensive since the authority was formed.

“If somebody has to go from A to B, they’re billed for the direct costs of operating that flight,” he said. “If House Bill 414 passes, we’re recommending that the state patrol be given the authority to charge for discretionary passenger transportation.” Rep. Charlice Byrd, R-Woodstock, said she opposed the legislation from the onset and was disappointed the measure was approved with no discussion of costs. She said several freshmen legislators who voted in favor of the bill know little background about the authority.

“As far as I know (the authority) was working quite well before, and I don’t know that there was any emergency that was not taken care of,” she said. “We just voted to have this new authority, and now we are taking half of it away and creating something else.”

The lack of statistics appeared to elicit a “no” vote from Rep. Paulette Rakestraw-Braddock, R-Hiram, who said she was back and forth on the issue.

“I was told it would cost more and told it would cost less and I erred on the side of caution,” she said in an email. “When in doubt, vote no.”

Byrd said she sensed an ulterior motive behind the legislation that could “reduce transparency in budgets.”

The bill would make the state patrol responsible for aviation in public safety and “legitimate state business functions.” It also says the Department of Public Safety would have the power to “develop an accountability system for state aviation operations and activities.”

“I’m sure somebody complained that they were not able to use an aircraft at their whim to fly here and thither,” Byrd said.

Rep. Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus, said the Legislature could always amend the law if House Bill 414 yields any unintended consequences.

“The only thing it would take is somebody abusing the system,” said Hugley, who supported the bill. “I see nothing wrong with public safety having access to their planes and not having to go through another agency. You’d have to balance public safety with transparency.”

Bearden, the chief sponsor of the bill, said the legislation likely will be discussed this week in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“I’ve talked to many senators, and they seem to be in support of the bill,” he said.

England gave the bill a 50 percent chance of becoming law. “I’d say it’s just like any other bill,” he said. “Sometimes even the best legislation gets defeated.”