CREATED Nov. 14, 2012 - UPDATED: Nov. 14, 2012
LEE COUNTY - Did you know Lee County commissioners and staff members have a private plane they can use to jet around the state ... and they don't have to pay a dime. But you do. Tonight....Fox 4 investigates what some are calling the county's secret jet. Four in your Corner investigator Mike Mason joins us live to explain.
We found Lee County taxpayers are paying for flights even if the pilot is the only one on board. And you may be surprised to hear what officials told us when we confronted them about it.
When newly elected commissioner Larry Kiker heard Lee County officials owned a private plane and were using it to jet around the state....he was concerned.
Larry Kiker: "I knew nothing about the plane, I was talking to someone and they said 'did you know?' and I said you've got to be kidding me?"
So he had to see it for himself. A couple of months ago, while using his iPad he shot this video of the twin engine Piper Navajo at Paige Field. He now has serious questions about how the plane is being used.
Larry Kiker: "I saw that son of a gun and I said this is not right, it doesn't look right, doesn't smell right."
Rob Weber: "It's a personal toy for the county."
Rob Weber is also concerned....he's a pilot himself and stays connected with local politics. He wants to know why county officials are allowed to use a plane to fly to places within driving distance.
Rob Weber: "Why we are spending this kind of money to fly these people it's just ridiculous."
Fox 4 requested information about the plane and found it's owned by the Lee County Port Authority, acquired 20 years ago in a drug forfeiture. In the past two years, officials with the Port Authority have taken 36 flights and Lee County commissioners have used it 20 times. The cost of operating this small plane: more than $85,000 in fiscal year 2010-11 and $76,000 in 2011-12.
But when we began crunching the numbers....things didn't seem to add up. The Port Authority estimates the hourly cost of flying the plane is about $1,000 per hour....that includes fuel and all costs associated with the aircraft.
For example, according to the Port Authority.....they spent about $7-thousand dollars to fly 4 people to Tallahassee last year. In their annual report they claim to have saved money because that trip would have cost more than $24,000 to book on a commercial airline, according to a software program they use to compare expenses. So we went to the Port Authority for answers.
Mike Mason: "I just don't understand how you can say that it could be $24,000 when you have a charter company here that will do it for $2800."
Vicki Moreland: "You're arguing about software that we don't provide, we don't have the software, we didn't make the software."
Lee County Port Authority spokesperson Vicki Moreland says the software factors expenses such as salaries of staff members for the time they're out of the office, hotel fees and meals. But could using a private plane really save a reported $150-thousand dollars last year?
Larry Kiker: "As a business man I'm going to question where is your $150 thousand dollar savings?"
Rob Weber: "This airplane and the way they're trying to justify it is just ridiculous."
But we found something that may be more disturbing. When Commissioner Frank Mann needed to fly to Tallahassee last year and spend the night the pilot flew back solo to Fort Myers and picked him up the next day."
Mann tells us in 2011, on two occasions, Chief Pilot James Cawthard told him he needed to fly back to Fort Myers to take care of his exotic cats. So each extra trip doubled the 3 hour flight time, making it a total of 6.4 hours and at a thousand dollars per flight hour that's more than $6-thousand dollars to fly a commissioner to Tallahassee.
Mike Mason: "The Chief Pilot wasn't going to stay over there in Tallahassee because he had to take care of his cats? That's why he said he had to go back."
Vicki Moreland: "The airplane is always returned back, I don't know what anyone told Commissioner Mann. I did ask Mr. Cawthard if he said anything about it, he says he does not recall that conversation."
Frank Mann: "I knew that he had cats that he took care of when he got home."
But the Port Authority contends it's standard procedure to return the plane to Fort Myers each night. So every time a county official or staff member needs to spend the night somewhere, the pilot flies solo back to Paige Field in Fort Myers and then goes back to pick them up the next day.
Mike Mason: "Is that a waste?"
Larry Kiker: "That seems insane, it absolutely sounds insane."
Rob Weber: "When you're taking double trips basically an additional 3 thousand dollars to let the pilot come back instead of spending the night, it's a big cost difference isn't it? A hotels going to cost you a hundred and something bucks a night, not 3 thousand."
Mike Mason: "I find it a little bit difficult to believe that it would be more expensive to put the pilot up overnight."
Vicki Moreland: "When the Tallahassee legislature is in session hotel rooms are not $49, or if you're travelling during peak times in Florida you can have hotel rooms that exceed several hundred dollars."
Moreland also contends the aircraft doesn't cost taxpayers a dime.
Vicki Moreland: "We don't get any of our money from property tax dollars we're completely funded by money that comes in and is derived from our partners here at the airport."
But Fox 4 found that's not exactly true.
Frank Mann: "Taxpayers do have to pay for the use of the plane while county commissioners are flying it."
Mike Mason: "So there are tax dollars involved."
Frank Mann: "Clearly, clearly."
In fact, each time a county official flies on the plane the cost of fuel and pilot time is billed back to the county. In 2010 and 2011....the county paid out more than ten thousand dollars...and in 2011 and 2012....the county was billed over nine thousand dollars......and those are your tax dollars.
Rob Weber: "For them to say it's not costing the tax payers money it's just more of their fuzzy math."
And Weber says even though the rest of the flights are paid by the Port Authority it is still passed on to the public.
Rob Weber: "If they're saying it's coming from airline fees and stuff like that, every time you purchase a ticket you're paying for those fees."
And that's one reason Frank Mann wants to sell the plane; something Commissioner Larry Kiker now supports.
Larry Kiker: "Just as a general service that's offered to staff as well as elected officials then I think that may be a point of contention with a lot of people."
Kiker says as soon as he takes office he'll support a motion to sell the plane. The Port Authority answers to a board comprised of county commissioners.