TSA Reimbursement Shrinks

GRAND RAPIDS — The Transportation Security Administration notified officials at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport recently that “due to financial shortfalls,” the agency can’t provide the promised rate of reimbursement to cover the cost of airport police response to problems at passenger screening checkpoints.

Airport police personnel aren’t stationed at security checkpoints, but are responsible for airport and airfield security and law enforcement, which includes support for TSA agents should they require assistance, protection or backup, explained airport spokesman Bruce Schedlbauer.

“There’s a very clear understanding between the airport and the TSA that TSA agents are not law enforcement agents; they are there to screen passengers and bags,” Schedlbauer said. “If a need arises for law enforcement intervention, airport police are summoned to the checkpoint.”

An officer might be summoned, for instance, if a traveler refuses to comply with the requests or demands of TSA agents or is acting in a suspicious or threatening manner, or if a weapon or a suspicious-looking item is spotted in his carry-on luggage during the screening process.

The agreement with TSA calls for an airport police officer to be available to respond at checkpoints 16 hours per day, seven days a week. Three officers cover those hours in different shifts, and the TSA reimbursement pays their salaries. Since there’s a minimum of three police officers on duty at all times at the airport, the one officer dedicated to respond to checkpoint problems always has two fellow officers available for backup, Schedlbauer noted.

Based on the size of the airport, he said, the maximum allowable response time under the TSA agreement is 10 minutes, but the typical response time at Ford International is less than one minute.

In July 2003, the Kent County Aeronautics Board signed a four-year agreement under which TSA said it would pay a maximum reimbursement of $183,084 for the first year, and increase reimbursement by 3 percent each subsequent year.

Two weeks ago the agency asked the board to modify the agreement by decreasing the maximum reimbursement for fiscal 2007 from $200,078 to $194,238, a rate that reimburses the aeronautics department for about 93 percent of the costs.

Aeronautics Director James Koslosky said it’s easy for Congress to pass laws that say the federal government is going to do this or that; then when lawmakers figure out they can’t afford the services, they don’t pay for them. What happens is that the financial burden of the federal directive gets passed down to the airport, and the airport has to take on what is really a federal role, he said.

Ford International is self-sustaining. It’s supported by the annual revenue it generates through rates and charges assessed to airport tenants and patrons for the use of airport services and facilities, not by any property taxes, special taxes or general fund earmarks. The airport meets its capital needs through a combination of sources, including earned surpluses, revenue bonds and grants under the federal Airport Improvement Program and the Michigan state aviation grant program.

“This law enforcement coverage that we’re providing at checkpoints is a federal requirement under federal law,” Koslosky said. “They’ve figured out that they can’t afford the bill within their budget. First they ask the airports to help fund it — that’s where we are today. You can see the funding shrinking, and the concern of all airports nationally is that this could very easily become a huge unfunded mandate.”

Asked what options the board has in regard to the amended agreement, Koslosky said: “There aren’t any.”

“If you don’t approve this agreement, you’re not going to get any of the reimbursement but you’re still going to be required by the federal security directive to provide the service,” he advised the board.

The aeronautics board approved the amended agreement. Schedlbauer said the airport would pick up the remaining 7 percent of the reimbursement tab.

The final year of the airport’s reimbursement agreement with TSA began Dec. 1. Come Dec. 1, 2007, there’s no telling whether there will be any reimbursement from TSA for law enforcement coverage of checkpoints. A new program could be put in place or the agreement could be renewed or extended, but that’s yet to be seen, Schedlbauer said.

“As of today, there is no replacement program on the books,” he said. “If one does not come about, then airports would essentially be required to fund 100 percent of this requirement. We certainly do not see the requirement going away. The responsibility will most likely still be there, unless for some reason the federal government ends up putting their own law enforcement officers at checkpoints, but we don’t see that happening.”    

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