Airport firm keeps lease

Commissioners stick with WestAir despite its troubled history

Frazier voices objection

October 20, 1999|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

A divided Board of County Commissioners agreed yesterday to continue leasing the Carroll County Regional Airport to WestAir II, despite the firm's struggles with debt, an embezzlement scandal and management problems.

In a 2-1 decision, the commissioners approved a contract with WestAir II, a partnership of Richard Jones, a physician who performs medical exams for pilots at the airport, and June M. Poage, who has run the county-owned airport since 1979.

Under the agreement, WestAir profits from hangar rentals and fuel sales. It pays the county rent and gives it a portion of the fuel revenue.

The commissioners questioned the partnership after they learned of a number of problems with WestAir, including $90,000 owed to the county for unpaid fuel, rent and other bills.

Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier objected to continuing the county's relationship with WestAir, based on the company's history of financial problems.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions," she said in an interview yesterday. "Where did $90,000 go?"

In a two-page statement, Frazier listed a number of problems with WestAir, including repeated late payments and poorly kept records. She also criticized the county for failing to oversee the troubled company.

"The County has grossly mismanaged the airport. There is no excuse not to have annual financial statements and no records or accountability for 20 years," she wrote. "Our own staff should be reprimanded when it's discovered why records were destroyed or were never gathered, and what exactly occurred in the months the $90,000 debt was accrued."

But Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Julia Walsh Gouge said an upturn in the general aviation business along with new hangars and other improvements at the airport ensure the company will have a promising future.

"I hope they'll be successful. I feel like they will," Dell said.

After winning the commissioners' approval, Poage and Jones paid off $75,000 of the company's debt to the county. Under the company's contract with the county, they also agreed to submit monthly financial statements and complete an annual audit.

Many of Frazier's concerns about WestAir stem from unpaid bills in 1998. During four months last year, the company failed to pay the county for jet fuel, hangar rent and a commission on its total revenue.

Poage, who was WestAir's sole owner at that time, said most of her debt stemmed from from an embezzlement scheme by a former employee. The former manager was found guilty last month of stealing parts, tools and money from the company from 1995 to 1997. Poage estimated her losses in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Poage tried to pull herself out of debt last year by forming a partnership with local businessman David Lawrence. With Lawrence, WestAir generated a profit, set up a plan to pay off its debt and won a new five-year contract with the county.

But in July, Lawrence left the partnership after disagreements with Poage, who bought his half of the company. Since then, Poage has tried to win support for her new choice for partner, Jones.

Under the county's contract with WestAir, any change in ownership would need to be approved by the commissioners. A number of uncertainties surrounding the company delayed the commissioners' vote until yesterday.

Over the past 20 years, the airport has grown from a small airstrip into a hub for corporate pilots. With federal and state funding, the county has put in a mile-long runway and a fuel storage system, allowing the airport to relieve small jet traffic at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Poage acknowledged that she could have made better management decisions. She said she should have bought insurance to protect her from losses in 1995, when bad weather ruined an air show she held at the site. She also said she regrets choosing a manager who embezzled from the company.

But her tenure has also been marked by a flawless safety record and the distinction as the best publicly owned airport in the state in 1996.

"I've put 20 years of blood, sweat and tears into this airport," Poage said yesterday. "I'm living proof I can survive in this business. I'm a survivor. I'm a fighter. I know what this airport can become."

Pub Date: 10/20/99

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