Audit of Tampa airport raises questions about spending and salaries

A Southwest Airlines plane is seen along the tarmac as workers continue construction of the an elevated people mover tracks near the new people mover terminal at Tampa International Airport Tuesday, April 18, 2017 Tampa. State auditors recently reviewed the airport's expenses on the $2.3 billion expansion. CHRIS URSO   |   Times
A Southwest Airlines plane is seen along the tarmac as workers continue construction of the an elevated people mover tracks near the new people mover terminal at Tampa International Airport Tuesday, April 18, 2017 Tampa. State auditors recently reviewed the airport's expenses on the $2.3 billion expansion. CHRIS URSO | Times
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TAMPA — A much-anticipated audit of Tampa International Airport unearthed misuse of a state grant and raised questions about the awarding and oversight of contracts related to the airport’s $2.3 billion expansion, the largest public works project in Tampa history.

The report from the state auditor general, which is not finalized but was obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, also found questionable justification for a $3.5 million public arts fund and for raises given to the airport’s top executives, which in some cases were as high as 10 percent.

However, the audit did not conclude there was "public corruption" at the airport — words used earlier this year by state Sen. Tom Lee when he demanded a review of the airport’s finances. Nor did it find that the airport had a problem paying off its debt obligations, which the Thonotosassa Republican also suggested.

Most of the audit findings called for tweaks to airport policies to improve transparency or incorporate best practices.

Airport spokeswoman Janet Zink said administrators have acted on some findings and are reviewing others. They have until Dec. 29 to respond.

"Overall, the audit shows we’ve been good stewards of the state’s investment in the airport expansion," Zink said.

When completed in 2023, the airport expansion project will include a new $323 million rental car facility, a new people mover to the main terminal and eventually more gates.

The audit included 12 findings, several related to the expansion:

• Twice, the airport authority board didn’t award contracts to the highest-scoring bidder. In each case, the auditor said the board’s reasoning ran counter to criteria it set up to rate each bid.

• A review of a $194 million Florida Department of Transportation grant reserved for capital improvements found that the state erroneously reimbursed the airport for furniture. The revelation sparked a larger review by the airport that led to the return of $438,000 in state funds.

•Airport management didn’t check if its subcontractors were licensed. Auditors acknowledged, however, that the airport required the lead contractor to only hire licensed subcontractors and all of the subcontractors checked were licensed.

The scope of the review sometimes extended beyond the planned expansion to the airport’s day-to-day operations.

For example, the report questioned how airport leaders rationalized five-figure raises that six executive team members received in 2014. The raises put the annual salaries of five vice presidents above $200,000.

Airport CEO Joe Lopano said in a 2014 memo that a study of executive salary ranges at TIA were "below the midpoint of the market."

But auditors said the study, which was not disclosed to the board, only included salary data from one peer airport. The rest of the information came from businesses in other industries.

In a draft response to the audit provided to the Times, airport management pushed back, noting that "market data is a key part of benchmarking" salaries.

The state report also highlighted $3.5 million set aside for the airport’s Public Art Program, a fund to commission artwork displayed in terminals and at gates. Since 2012, the airport has paid artists $572,320 for an LED tiles and metal display, $300,000 for a 14-foot hanging structure and $297,000 for a 30-foot-by-20-foot tapestry.

According to the audit, "authority records did not always demonstrate the legal authority, or reasonableness of, artwork expenditures."

Lee shocked the Tampa Bay legislative delegation in April when he called for an airport audit on the Senate floor. Two fellow Republicans from the region, Sens. Jack Latvala of Clearwater and Dana Young of Tampa, immediately came to the defense of the airport, one of the region’s top economic engines.

But the audit won support from House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and was ultimately included in the final budget.

Aides to Young and Corcoran said the lawmakers would have to read the report’s findings before commenting. Lee did not respond to a phone call.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist called the findings "minor."

"The bottom line is the airport has been good stewards of its money," said Crist, who sits on the aviation authority board. "It’s a clean bill of health.’’

Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.

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