Audit questions legality of aviation fees

Sept. 17, 2009


Sep. 17--CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A legislative audit released Wednesday questions whether it's legal for the state Department of Administration to impose nearly $2 million a year in fees on state agencies to pay for the state's airplanes, for the benefit of only a handful of agencies -- primarily the Governor's Office.

Each year, state agencies pay nearly $1.8 million to subsidize the cost of the state Aviation Division, while only a few agencies make significant use of the fleet. The Governor's Office, the Division of Mining and Reclamation and the State Police are the most frequent fliers.

In most years, the Governor's Office is the leading user of the state's aviation fleet, followed by Mining and Reclamation.

Administration Secretary Robert Ferguson said the subsidy -- assessed as a $92 per month surcharge on each state vehicle each agency leases -- is vital to the aviation fleet.

"If you made it pay as you go, no one would use it, because it would be much cheaper to fly commercial air or drive," he said.

Currently, state agencies pay $1,400 per flight hour to lease the state's King Air plane, or about $150 per person if the flight is at capacity. The smaller Cessna Caravan goes for $700 an hour, or $57 per passenger if the plane is full.

Those fees brought in about $900,000 in fiscal 2009, or less than half of the income from the assessment on vehicles, the audit found.

Overall, the cost to operate the Aviation Division, with a staff of 11, is $2.4 million a year.

"There's just no way you're going to break even on this," Ferguson told the joint committees on Government Operations and Government Organization Wednesday. "They're very expensive to operate."

The audit questions whether Administration has legal authority to impose the assessment -- particularly when many of the agencies paying the highest amounts never use the state's aviation fleet.

Since 2007, seven state agencies that have never used state aircraft have paid more than $1 million in fees, the audit found. That includes the Public Service Commission ($316,325), Miners' Health Safety and Training ($301,551), Department of Labor ($149,448), the Division of Motor Vehicles ($144,065), and the Alcohol Beverage Control Administration ($107,206).

Conversely, at least two major users of the state's airplanes and helicopters -- the State Police and the Division of Highways -- do not pay the $92 per vehicle per month assessment. They are exempt under state law from having to obtain their vehicles through the Department of Administration.

Ferguson told legislators Wednesday that Administration attorneys believe the department has legal authority to impose the assessment on all agencies that lease vehicles through the department.

"My lawyer says we're dead on target, we can charge that $92 a month," he said.

The legislative audit, however, contends that state law allows the department to assess fees on vehicles leased to state agencies -- but only if the fees are directly tied to the costs of operating and maintaining those vehicles.

"The Department of Administration does have express authority to charge state agencies for the leasing of vehicles," the audit states. "It does not, however, have express authority to charge agencies a general fee that does not directly relate to vehicle usage in order to fund the Aviation Division."

Ferguson said there are cost benefits to agencies that use the aviation fleet, including the hours of productive work-time saved by not having to travel by car or on commercial airlines.

"Do you want the governor spending six hours riding in a car to Martinsburg?" he asked.

@tag:Reach Phil Kabler at [email protected] or 304-348-1220.