Threatened federal cuts at Boca airport lead to salary debate
May 20, 2013
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  • BOCA RATON — In the wake of a proposed $650,000 federal budget cut that threatened to close the tower at Boca Raton Airport, a battle has erupted around the salary of the airport’s manager.

    In one corner is former City Council member David Freudenberg, who says he lost his spot on the airport board when he started asking questions about the salaries of the airport staff, particularly that of airport manager Ken Day, who earns more to oversee a single airport with six employees than the airport manager for Palm Beach County, who oversees four air fields including Palm Beach International, and 140 employees.

    In the other corner is the board, which says Freudenberg’s salary inquiry was out of line and unnecessary.

    They also say Day is worth every bit of his $218,000 annual salary, which is paid out of landing fees and rents generated by Boca’s airport, which has about 50,000 landings and takeoffs a year.

    Freudenberg said his inquiry started after federal cuts threatened the tower. He said the Boca airport staff is the highest-paid among the state’s general aviation airports. He also said the airport is generating an annual $1.2 million surplus in landing fees, fuel fees and rents — and that the air traffic controllers could have easily been covered with local money. The airport currently has a surplus of about $6.5 million, according to airport officials.

    “What bothered me was when the issue of (money for staffing the) the tower came up, there was, this, ‘Oh, we can’t afford it,'” Freudenberg said at last week’s airport authority meeting. “We are so worried about the FAA cutting off our tower (funding), but we’re certainly willing to throw out money (for staff) like there’s no tomorrow.”

    The Airport Authority should not have filed suit to stop the threatened cuts or raised the specter of closing the tower, Freudenberg said.

    Janet Sherr, director of landside operations for the airport authority, said Freudenberg voted for the lawsuit — a strategic move that unified airports around the country in a way that ultimately paid off.

    “It has been put on the record that the number of lawsuits filed was a large determinant of why the FAA extended funding from June 15 through Sept. 30,” she said.

    The airport board’s lawsuit has been suspended for now.

    Boca’s airport operation is unique among area airports without airline carriers. It is not a municipally owned facility such as Pompano Beach Airpark, nor county-owned such as North Perry Airport in Pembroke Pines. Besides the FAA funding for the air traffic controllers’ salary, landing fees, fuel fees and airport rents fund Boca’s operations.

    The Boca Raton City Council appoints five airport board members and the Palm Beach County Commission appoints the other two.

    Until the control tower crisis hit, its monthly meetings were lightly attended and board members approved much of what the airport staff presented. Freudenberg says that’s why a total of $1.2 million was paid for staff expenses last year at Boca. He said the board was never told how much the manager was making, just asked to approve salary increases.

    Freudenberg said his questions rankled the airport board and airport staff, so Board Chairman Frank Feiler went to City Council members to lobby against his re-appointment to the board.

    Feiler said he’d like to pay Day more and called the issues that Freudenberg has raised “irrelevant.”

    “We have a very fine operation that has a surplus, while other airports do not,” Feiler said. “That’s because of the fine management staff we have.”

    When the voting for the board seat that came up, Freudenberg failed to garner a single vote.

    Local attorney Mitchell Fogel was appointed to the seat, and Boca’s Deputy Mayor Susan Haynie said it had nothing to do with Freudenberg’s salary questions.

    “At this juncture, I felt that Mr. Fogel was the most qualified,” Haynie said.