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Bidder cries foul after agency rejects deal to run Florida's air service

TALLAHASSEE — The head of the agency that manages the state's controversial air service for politicians has decided against privatizing the operation even though a low bidder pledged to save taxpayers up to $600,000 yearly.

Linda South, the secretary of the Department of Management Services, said in a written statement that she canceled bids to have a private company run the air service because her agency provides "the best quality service at the best value."

The low bidder was incredulous.

"It's a load of junk," said Robert Feindt, a pilot and bid negotiator for Craig Air Center. "Why don't they want to save taxpayers money?"

The state agency decided to consider bidding out the air operations after a recommendation from legislative analysts, who noted in an October report that flying state politicians and employees has grown in cost.

The complex bidding process was divided into multiple parts. But overall, bidders were asked how much they would charge in two scenarios:

• Complete privatization, in which the state would sell its planes and the private company would provide the aircraft, pilots and mechanics. Craig Air Center bid $2.1 million, compared to the $2.7 million it cost the state this year.

• Partial privatization, in which the private company would provide the pilots and mechanics but operate the state's existing planes, a King Air turboprop and a Cessna Citation business jet. Craig Air bid $640,000, compared to the $864,000 that DMS currently charges.

A spokeswoman for South, Linda McDonald, said there were hidden costs to bidding out the air services. In a bad economy, she said, it would be difficult for the state to sell its planes and net a good profit. Also, the state would have to pay upward of $284,000 in unemployment post-employment benefits.

The other finalist to bid on the state air operations, Malone AirCharter of Jacksonville, submitted bids that were higher than the cost of DMS' operations. Owner Scott Malone said DMS' explanations sounded reasonable.

But Craig Air's negotiator, Feindt, questioned DMS' numbers. He said both of the state planes are highly sought-after aircraft. The King Air cost the state nothing to buy, because it was seized in a drug bust years ago. And the Cessna was leased, so the state could profit from its sale as well.

At least one high-powered legislator, Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander of Lake Wales, said he was concerned with DMS' decision to cancel the aircraft operation bids.

"In these times, we need to save every penny we can," said Alexander, a frequent critic of state contracting and state plane use.

Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com

Bidder cries foul after agency rejects deal to run Florida's air service 07/24/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 24, 2009 10:43pm]
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