WEST COLUMBIA — South Carolina's politically appointed airport commissioners are supposed to be unpaid, but the 12 commissioners at Columbia's airport have enjoyed stipends worth hundreds of dollars a year, trips to Hawaii and Las Vegas, free parking next to the terminal and the benefits of sponsorships including an arena suite filled with booze.
The perks available to commissioners at the state's fourth-busiest airport exceed what far larger Southeast airports provide their governing boards, an analysis by The Post and Courier found.
"These folks waste money for their own pleasure," said the Columbia board's chief critic, freshman state Sen. Dick Harpootlian. "When we have an airport run like a South American dictatorship, there’s no question why it’s fourth."
Harpootlian, a Columbia Democrat, contends redirecting money spent on perks would result in lower parking prices and attract more airlines that would reduce ticket prices and curb the number of Columbia travelers flying out of other airports.
While offering free parking for governing board members is common across Southeast airports, the Columbia board uniquely extends that benefit indefinitely. And, compared to other capital city airports, the commission provides an unusually high number of VIP free parking passes to politicians, saving them and whoever they hand their pass to up to $12 daily.
Columbia's airport doesn't get any local or state taxes. Its revenue comes largely from parking, landing fees and leases. Under the 1962 state law that created the board, the legislative delegations for Richland and Lexington counties each appoint five members and Columbia City Council appoints two. They're supposed to be limited to eight years. But three of Richland County legislators' appointees have served at least 10.
Harpootlian, who returned his VIP parking pass shortly after receiving it, wants all commissioners fired.
But House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, also a Columbia Democrat, counters commissioners are doing exactly what they should to grow the airline business in a region where travelers' first inclination is to drive to Charlotte.
The proof, he says, is in the increased number of nonstop flights added over the last year — including one to Miami that begins in December — a steadily falling debt and passenger numbers that have risen to the best in a decade.
"Do you get ideas about how to run something by sitting in your office and looking at the floor, or do you go to conferences and get ideas about how it should be done?" Rutherford said. "It's easy to be critical of government. What's not easy is to run it and make it function, especially when there's real, actual competition."
End to a suite deal
Columbia's airport commission is feeling the pressure to change its spending habits.
After Harpootlian raised questions about the airport's advertising contract with the University of South Carolina that included a suite at Colonial Life Arena for the past five years, commissioners voted unanimously last month to give up the 16-seat suite with one basketball season still left on the current three-year, $457,000 contract.
The actual contract isn't being rewritten, but the airport is negotiating to buy additional advertising at football, basketball and baseball games with the suite's $30,000 remaining estimated value, said Gregg Hornsby, the airport's finance director.
Dropping the suite also means the airport will no longer spend $13,000 to $26,000 annually on catering the games, according to airport records.
Commission Chairman James Whitmire, who's been on the board 17 years, said the decision to dump the suite did not come from Harpootlian's criticisms that began in February.
"Marketing is kind of fluid. You make adjustments," he said last week. "A lot was made out of nothing."
Commissioners canceled the suite quietly. Legislators for Richland and Lexington counties contacted last week didn't know about it. The decision pleased neither the airport's defenders nor detractors.
Harpootlian said the airport shouldn't be advertising at sporting events at all. He believes money not spent on the suite should be refunded and redirected toward cutting parking fees.
"A lot of what they call advertising is pumping money into local entities, this school or that school. I wouldn’t spend a single dime on so-called public relations," Harpootlian said. "People make choices based on convenience and price. They get that off Orbitz or another web site. ... There’s no loyalty to an airport."
State Sen. Katrina Shealy agreed.
"I side with him on this," the Lexington Republican said. "I don’t know how many people decide what airport they’re going to fly at a football or basketball game."
Beyond the Gamecocks contract, the airport's $700,000 annual marketing budget includes $16,000 to advertise with the Fireflies, Columbia's minor league baseball team. That contract includes season tickets to a four-seat "bullpen box" and use of a suite for two games, with 20 tickets for each, according to documents Harpootlian received through a Freedom of Information Act request and provided The Post and Courier.
This year, the airport said, tickets to the third-baseline box were given away to baseball fans who entered a "Let Us Upgrade You" contest. And commissioners received remaining suite tickets on a first-come basis only after they were distributed to companies the airport was hosting.
Other annual sponsorships include $2,500 for the George Rogers Foundation golf tournament, which pays for a golf team of four and a dinner table of eight, and $5,000 to the Palmetto Capital City Classic football weekend in August that features games between historically black colleges and universities.
Previous sponsorships with tickets included South Carolina State University football games and golf tournament fundraisers in Lexington County. The airport supports local youth teams too, such as Batesburg-Leesville baseball and Lexington lacrosse, with sponsorships in the hundreds of dollars.
Rutherford argues such advertising encourages people to type in "CAE" — the airport's code — when they're looking online, where they may be surprised to find a flight cheaper, or at least comparable, to Charlotte.
"And how do you do that? You've got to go to golf tournaments, basketball tournaments, places that catch business travelers who are going to fly out of somewhere, you just want it to be here," he said.
He called canceling the Colonial Life Arena suite "absolutely ridiculous."
Following a closed session meeting last week, commissioners unanimously approved $39,300 in sponsorships they recommend for 2020, plus setting aside $8,000 for future requests. The list looks largely the same as previous years, but the motion stressed that staff will vet each event to ensure it complies with the airport's own policy and federal regulations to benefit the airport.
While commissioners later insisted the recent changes had nothing to do with questions raised about their spending, they obviously talked about it behind closed doors.
Back in open session, just before adjourning, they discussed inquiries from The Post and Courier and whether and what to say to legislators, apparently without realizing the reporter was sitting in the front row.
"Do we want to submit something to our delegation to say that these are the reasons why we attend these functions?" Whitmire asked.
Before 2017, commissioners were each allowed $6,000 annually in travel expenses for airport conferences, which could roll into the next year if not used, though that was a budgeting practice rather than an actual policy.
Then The Nerve, the online news outlet of the South Carolina Policy Council, reported in 2016 that commissioners were not only exceeding that allotment, the airport was paying for commissioners' alcohol and meals with no expense limits. Commissioner Duane Cooper's reimbursements for a 2015 trip to Washington included a $552 dinner with a $100 tip.
Under the policy change that followed the article, the airport makes hotel and flight reservations upfront for commissioners, and reimbursements are limited to taxis, mileage if they drive, daily per diems for meals, plus their standard $35 daily meeting rate.
Commissioners get paid $35, plus mileage, every time they represent the airport, whether it's a board meeting, a holiday party, a gala or a golf tournament. The stipend applies to phoned-in meetings too. The commission received nearly $10,000 in stipends last year. That total does not include daily stipends paid while commissioners traveled to conferences.
Rather than put a limit on cost, the travel policy limits the number of conferences to three out of state, plus the S.C. Aviation Association's annual conference, though it allows exceptions. The airport still budgets $72,000 for commissioners' travels.
Cooper, director of the S.C. House Democratic Caucus, attended five conferences last year, in Isle of Palms, Seattle and Nashville as well as two in Washington. That doesn't break policy, since the airport's director asked Cooper to represent him at a legislative conference in Washington for airport executives, Hornsby said. In all, the airport spent more than $13,400 on Cooper's 2018 trips.
Commission Vice Chairman Richard McIntyre, an executive with First Reliance Bank in Lexington, also took five trips last year to Isle of Palms, Las Vegas, Nashville, Washington and Hawaii. The airport spent more than $11,200 on that travel.
Whitmire attended three conferences last year to Edmonton, Seattle and Nashville — charging the airport nearly $10,000.
"It feels junket-esque," said Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia, another critic and only other VIP to return his parking pass.
Four commissioners took no airport-funded trips last year, three went to one conference, and two attended two.
"We don't go to many conferences these days," Whitmire, partner in a Columbia accounting firm, told The Post and Courier last week.
Asked what he'd learned from his trips, Whitmire said conferences he attended years ago taught him the federal rules on female- and minority-owned businesses and how to do a better job hiring them. Now, he rarely hears the complaints he once heard frequently, he said.
While not required, commissioners often give oral reports on what they've learned at conferences, according to the airport. Following his June trip to an airport executives conference in Boston, Whitmire told commissioners how impressed he was by a presentation from biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, and he encouraged his colleagues to travel as well.
The experience is "always very enlightening," he said at the board's July meeting. "I'm always in favor of this staff or commission expanding your horizons beyond the borders of Columbia."
Cooper defended his trips as a necessity, not a benefit, for making deals and understanding the evolving, highly regulated industry.
"I don't understand how else you would learn about the industry and bring back ideas. The airlines want commissioners who know what's going on," he said. "This is a relationship business. How do you get a Miami flight? Networking matters. Folks knowing who we are and being comfortable with our folks is definitely a positive."
Not only does Columbia compete with Charlotte, he said, but the capital city airport faces more challenges in growing passengers than other airports in South Carolina that are tourist destinations.
What do other airports do?
By comparison, Charleston's airport, South Carolina's biggest and fastest-growing, doesn't advertise with any college or sports team, nor does it provide sports tickets or suite access to its 11 commissioners. Many don't even take the $35 stipend provided only for attending an actual board meeting, said state Sen. Paul Campbell, the airport's CEO.
And, while the airport budgets $10,000 annually for commissioners' potential travel — $62,000 less than Columbia — that amount normally just rolls over from one year to the next, said Doug Boston, the airport's chief financial officer.
"I’ve been with the authority for three years, and I’ve never seen spending for travel," he said. "It's there just in case."
The Greenville-Spartanburg airport spent $10,500 on its commissioners' travels last year. But they don't get a penny for attending meetings or events. And event tickets provided through its marketing deal with the Bon Secours Wellness Arena are doled out solely by the airport's business development office, spokesman Tom Tyra said.
Officials with the Myrtle Beach airport, which is governed differently than the state's other three because it's county-owned, did not return multiple messages.
The Savannah/Hilton Head airport budgets $25,000 for commissioners' conferences. The only free tickets commissioners receive are for the RBC Heritage golf tournament on Hilton Head Island every April. There's no need to market the airport much locally since most of its passengers are flying in from other places, spokeswoman Lori Lynah said.
The Raleigh airport, which is three times the size of Columbia, spent $13,600 total on its board members' travels last year.
No elected official gets a parking pass at the North Carolina capital city airport. Only current board members get one, and that privilege ends once they're off the board, spokeswoman Stephanie Howco said.
In Atlanta, the country's largest airport, state legislators do not receive a parking pass, though city council members and Georgia's congressional delegation get them. Former President Jimmy Carter has his own space.
A controversy over free parking passes at Florida's capital city airport caused the Tallahassee commissioners to vote unanimously in July to discontinue the practice.
The Columbia airport's been handing out free parking passes to legislators and a host of other officials since 1991.
Currently, the VIP passes to an uncovered lot beside baggage claim are provided to the 12 commissioners and 78 others — including the elected officials who appoint them.
In all, the passes have been swiped 520 times since last September, according to a lot access report run Thursday.
The airport shouldn't be throwing away such a major source of revenue, Harpootlian said. "This is a freebie that's abused."
Legislators in Richland and Lexington counties explain they're not the ones racking up the free parking. Some say they give their cards to constituents on a first-come, first-serve basis.
"I don’t travel that much, so if someone calls me that knows we have that, they can use it, if it's available," said Rep. Chip Huggins, R-Columbia, whose card logged the most swipes of any of the legislators, at 20, between February 2018 and 2019.
"Nobody's ever told me we couldn't do that," said the 20-year incumbent, adding he'd support doing away with the passes altogether.
Shealy said even other legislators in the delegation have borrowed hers, since they'd already loaned theirs out and needed another.
"If one of my constituents wants to use it so they don’t have to pay for parking, they can," she said. "It saves you money."