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Airport debt stirs up dogfight between council, OnoratoEdit

By Justin Vellucci, TRIBUNE-REVIEW, February 20, 2008

Allegheny County Council took action Tuesday that Chief Executive Dan Onorato called "illegal" when it declared war over a $42.5 million debt at Pittsburgh International Airport.

Council unanimously backed an ordinance directing the county Airport Authority to pay back the money, which Councilman Chuck McCullough said has been owed for more than a decade.

"The airport authority is supposed to be the county's steward," said McCullough, R-Upper St. Clair, a solicitor under former county Chief Executive Jim Roddey. "It is not supposed to be our competitor. It is not supposed to be our enemy."

If the county recouped the money, McCullough said it could more than double its fund balance or talk about repealing the controversial 10 percent drink tax.

Onorato -- who says the county is obligated to use $150 million in state gambling money for the $42.5 million debt and other airport debt and development -- criticized council.

"Council's ordinance is illegal," he said. "They have clearly overstepped their authority as laid out in the home rule charter. It also violates existing agreements signed by the airport authority and previous administrations."

Onorato can veto the ordinance, though council can override him with a 10-vote supermajority.

Twelve council members voted to approve the ordinance. Absent were council President Rich Fitzgerald, D-Squirrel Hill, and Councilwoman Jan Rea, R-McCandless. Brenda Frazier, D-Stanton Heights, recently resigned from council.

Airport officials have said they won't pay back money they claim was not a loan.

"It's not a debt. It's clearly set out ... as an investment," said Jeffrey Letwin, an attorney for the authority. "I've been through four county solicitors, saying the same thing, 'I can't do it.' "

Onorato said repayment of the $42.5 million is in motion. On Dec. 31, the state wired the county treasurer $19.9 million to start paying down that debt.

Council members used the ordinance to deepen a schism that formed recently when council's GOP minority unsuccessfully tried to block the reappointment of Glenn Mahone, the airport authority's longtime chairman.

"Patience is really running thin with this airport authority," said Councilman Vince Gastgeb, R-Bethel Park.

Mahone could not be reached for comment.

"I'll stack our record against anything, any agency in the county," he said recently.

McCullough is concerned about $6 million he said airport officials held in US Airways common stock. He maintains at least half the money from the stocks -- part of a settlement reached among US Airways, the county and the authority in 2003 -- belongs to the county.

Letwin said airport officials sold the stock for about $450,000 in 2004, after McCullough's tenure as solicitor ended and Onorato, a Democrat, had taken office.

"This is an example of the airport authority probably catching things in a changed administration," McCullough said. "These guys took advantage of that situation."

County Solicitor Michael Wojcik said the airport authority kept money from the stock because the claim was theirs, not the county's.

"We had some rights but they weren't worth much of anything," Wojcik said.

A US Airways spokesman said last night that information about the stock was not available.


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