Jan. 10--State legislators are losing one of their perks: free parking at Palm Beach International Airport. But the benefit remains for county commissioners, members of Congress and dozens of senior county employees.
County Administrator Bob Weisman ordered the change Monday after officials reviewed the implications of the new, highly restrictive state law prohibiting gifts to legislators. Airport Director Bruce Pelly said the electronic cards would be deactivated immediately.
Other airports are doing the same thing. Broward County e-mailed members of its legislative delegation on Friday advising them that its County Attorney's Office recommended deactivating airport parking cards. Last week, Tampa International Airport eliminated free parking for all elected officials, not only state legislators.
Palm Beach County is not going that far. It only is eliminating free parking for state legislators, who are covered by the new lobbying law.
"I guess it's one of our bennies," said County Commissioner Jeff Koons, an elected official who will continue to enjoy free parking. He said he didn't see any problem with the practice.
Commissioner Burt Aaronson agreed. "I don't see any reason to revisit it. I don't think it's abused."
The Department of Airports has 96 passes that allow holders free parking. Among the 39 elected officials are members of Congress, the West Palm Beach mayor, countywide elected officials such as the tax collector and chief judge, and 18 legislators whose passes are being deactivated.
Free parking also goes to 39 senior county employees, including the directors of the library system and the bus line. The rest go to others, including the nine members of the Airport Advisory Board.
Weisman said free parking is provided for people to use on official government business. Without the free parking cards, they would have to be reimbursed by their government agencies, so the program saves money for the officials' governments, he said.
"It's a matter of convenience. It's not a perk," Weisman said.
To use the card, a holder swipes it at the exit or shows it to an attendant. Pelly said there is no policing done to see if the parking passes are used only for official business.
"We advise them it's for their official use," Pelly said. "Sometimes you've got to trust people."
Weisman and Pelly said the county acted because of the question about whether the parking perk would count as an unlawful gift under the lobbying law passed last year. The county hires lobbyists to influence the outcome of legislation, which is why the county-owned airport may be prohibited from giving a gift to legislators. "We're not taking any chances," Pelly said.
More than 100 state and federal lawmakers, city officials and some other dignitaries have had about $100,000 in parking fees waived at Hobby and Bush Intercontinental airports since 2004.
Elected leaders will have to reapply for free privilege after abuse concerns.
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