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Supervisor Gray: Federal funding cuts won’t jeopardize airport services

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MASSENA— Though ridership has taken off at Ogdensburg International Airport, federal budget cuts could ground commercial passenger service at the facility.

The Transportation Security Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has reduced funding to help small airports provide law enforcement officers at passenger screenings.

Massena town officials aren’t painting as bleak a picture. They will see its funding cut from $74,000 per year to less than $35,000. The town has a contract with the Massena Village Police Department to have an officer at the airport for departures.

At its meeting this week, the Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority board of directors accepted a $43,800 per year grant to pay for police presence at the airport, a reduction of almost 50 percent from previous funding levels near $86,000.

“The $50,000 has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is us,” said Wade A. Davis, authority executive director.

Currently, the Ogdensburg Police Department provides an officer for the screenings at the airport off state Route 68. With an already tight budget, the authority is unsure whether it can provide the additional funds, said Frederick J. Carter, vice chairman.

“We can’t afford it anymore,” he said. “We have to budget for this money or we’re out of the passenger service. We have now hit a crisis; we need to sit down with the city and the TSA and work something out.”

Massena Town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray said the town board faces the same issue at the Massena International Airport. “I don’t see the services being in jeopardy, but the TSA needs to wake up and smell the coffee,” he said. “They are unreasonable with the demands they are placing on us.”

Mr. Gray said Massena’s law enforcement officer funding was cut by $39,000.

“The bottom line is we lose money at the airport anyway and this doesn’t help matters,” he said. “There is a potential impact on service.”

Cape Air of Barnstable, Mass., currently serves each airport with three incoming and departing flights each day.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the TSA required that a law enforcement officer be present while commercial passengers are screened at airports. To help smaller airports meet the requirement, the Law Enforcement Officer Reimbursement program was created, providing grants based on the number of flights and passengers moving through airports.

This year, the TSA changed the way it calculates the grants, reducing both the estimated number of hours an officer will need to work and the amount each officer will be paid.

Additing to the difficulty for Massena and Ogdensburg, flights often depart near shift changes for their local police departments, requiring overtime pay to staff the airports.

In Ogdensburg, the city and the port authority split that cost. After the funding reduction, the authority wants the city to pay more.

“We’re still running the city’s airport,” said Mr. Carter. “They should be able to help us here, but they don’t want to give any financial support.”

Interim Ogdensburg City Manager Philip A. Cosmo said the city preferred to hold off negotiations until John M. Pinkerton, the new city manager, takes office later this month.

“We’ll be talking to them and taking a look at what the TSA has provided,” said Mr. Cosmo. “I’m sure we’re going to be able to come up with something.”

Mr. Carter said the TSA should be able to provide its own security.

“They have the training and the staff already there at the airport,” he said. “The TSA can do this for themselves.”

A law enforcement presence might not be necessary at the airports, said Massena’s Mr. Gray. “Is there a need to have an officer standing by while passengers are being screened?” he said.

Mr. Gray said he knows of at least one north country airport that does not keep an officer present during passenger screening, but would not say which one.

The OBPA may discontinue using Ogdensburg officers for airport security and instead send out a request for proposals, thus alleviating the burden of overtime payments.

If a solution isn’t found, the OBPA will no longer operate commercial aviation at the Ogdensburg International Airport, said Mr. Carter.

Cape Air officials did not return calls for comment Thursday.

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