The federal “sequester” was supposed to be so crazy that Washington never would let it happen. Now that it has happened, the across-the-board cuts are showing that budgeting often was crazy before the sequester.
Consider the fate of Boca Raton Airport and Witham Field in Martin County. Because the sequester requires the Federal Aviation Administration to cut $637 million by Sept. 30, the agency notified those facilities and 147 other small airports that it no longer will pay to staff their control towers because the airports are safe without the the controllers.
But if the 149 airports are safe without controllers, why has the FAA been spending millions year after year to staff the towers? The answer is more political than fiscal. Members of Congress from both parties have objected to the cuts on behalf of constituents — often well-connected ones — who want the towers staffed for their private aircraft.
As it turns out, the sequester also spreads craziness downstream. Last week, board members of the Boca Raton Airport Authority voted unanimously to sue the federal government to prevent the FAA from withdrawing the roughly $650,000 for contractors who staff the tower. They did this even after hearing from their attorney that there is “very little chance” that a federal court will force the FAA to keep paying forever. There is only a “limited chance” that a court even would force the FAA to delay the cuts. Martin County also has joined a suit against the FAA.
Last week, without a court ruling, the FAA gave the airports a reprieve until mid-June. In that time, Boca and Witham, which needs about $350,000 to staff the tower, will consider imposing user fees. Witham officials plan a meeting tonight to hear from the public. The Boca Airport Authority meets again next Wednesday.
Pilots who spoke at the Boca airport’s emergency meeting said the airports are safe without a tower, but less safe. However, the threatened shutdown also has revealed that the FAA previously justified staffing the towers by using decades-old data that exaggerated safety concerns.
As the airports get a reprieve, The Post reported that $1.9 million in sequester-related reductions to federal grants forced the Palm Beach County Commission to cut a breakfast program for the elderly, Head Start bus rides for low-income children and a program that helps low-income families pay utility bills. If the sequester is making airports less safe, the safety net is in even greater danger.
Jac Wilder VerSteeg
for The Post Editorial Board