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Operator of Albert Whitted Airport can seek new contract despite owing St. Petersburg money

ST. PETERSBURG — It took three hours, but in the end, City Council members gave a break to the man who has operated Albert Whitted Airport for almost three decades, though the city says he owes almost $100,000.

The decision wasn't the one Ron Methot and Mayor Bill Foster wanted. The council rejected a resolution that would have let Methot, owner of Bay Air Flying Service, pay the disputed sum in return for a five-year renewal of his expiring contract.

Instead, Methot will have to compete for the job. In a concession, though, council members changed the conditions that would have prohibited Bay Air from responding to the city's request for proposals seeking a new airport operator. The RFP will no longer require that participating companies be debt-free with the city. The motion stipulates that Methot's financial dispute be settled by October, when his contract expires.

"It was unfortunate the original proposal didn't pass," Methot said Friday, "but we were pleased overall."

The city may have lost ground in its effort to collect most of what it says is owed. Methot had originally agreed to pay close to $12,543, but increased his offer by tens of thousands of dollars to ensure the contract renewal.

Thursday's debate appeared to frustrate Foster.

"I thought we had the best deal,'' he said.

A procession of those for and against the agreement made their case to council members. Opponents also submitted 125 letters outlining their objections.

The RFP process "should not be abandoned," said Jim Mueller, who no longer keeps his aircraft at Albert Whitted.

Mark Ebenhoch, who also spoke, told the Tampa Bay Times that people are angry about what appeared to be "backroom dealing" to allow Methot to continue.

"He's locking himself into another gravy train. . . . It needs to be publicly put up for bid. If you can't pay your bills to the city, the city is normally not going to do business with you," he said.

"He does more to repel people from that airport than attract people, based on my observations of being at the airport for the last five years."

Methot said the complaints came from a tiny fraction of his "literally hundreds of customers."

Methot's supporters included Steve Westphal, owner of the Hangar Restaurant and Flight Lounge at the airport, who said he could attest to the professionalism of the Bay Air operation.

Pier advisory task force vice chairman Ed Montanari said Methot is trusted and well-liked and commercial pilot David Holcomb described his operation as "one of the best."

Council member Bill Dudley said he hadn't known of problems until he got a call "from the other side." He suggested that the issue be sent back to the budget, finance and taxation committee.

Council member Karl Nurse didn't agree. "This is the third time we've had this conversation," he said.

"We haven't been tidy in our end of the business," Nurse said, referring to the city's billing practices.

The city has to take some responsibility for the situation, council member Jeff Danner said.

"I don't think we're owed the money,'' he said. "We neglected to turn the bills in and then we charge him late fees.''

The problems date to an audit report from 2010. The city said Methot racked up penalties for paying his rent late and owed money for repairs and stormwater fees. Methot blames the economy and the city's method of billing for the dispute.

"If I pay my rent to the city late and they don't notify me that I'm accruing late fees, it's unreasonable to try to assess them three years later with penalties and interest, because the audit found that the staff erred in not notifying me that late fees were accruing," he said.

Dave Metz, the city's downtown facilities director, said the city takes responsibility "for a portion of the late fees, approximately a third."

"I'll be happy to provide for the $100,000 of everything in the audit,'' Methot said, "but if I'm going to cover the tracks for the city, at the very least they should exercise the option in my current lease agreement for a five-year extension.''

Responses to the RFP are due on June 8.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

Operator of Albert Whitted Airport can seek new contract despite owing St. Petersburg money 04/07/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 7, 2012 4:31am]
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