Aircraft used to manage water supplies from Orlando to the Keys also give rides to high-ranking public officials, flying at taxpayer expense.
Trips by the South Florida Water Management District's governing board include flights with only one passenger, hops shorter than some workday commutes, and treks to such affairs as the governor's swearing-in ceremony and a district office barbecue, according to a review by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
From October 2004 to September 2007, the district's governing board members flew almost 600 times, costing more than $800,000 in fuel, insurance, hangar space, maintenance and other expenses, according to the Sun-Sentinel's examination of flight logs, budgets and other records.
The trips include flights from Fort Lauderdale and Miami to the district's headquarters in West Palm Beach. At times, two board members are picked up and dropped off at airports 20 miles apart in Miami-Dade County.
Auditors in the past have questioned the use of the district's fleet, which includes a twin-engine turboprop plane and three helicopters. There are five full-time pilots and two mechanics. Employees jokingly refer to the department as "the Air Force."
Board members set the flying policy, which allows them to use the district's aircraft for official business within the state of Florida. The policy calls for staff to fly commercial or drive whenever it's less expensive than flying on the agency's aircraft.
While agencies across Florida are under cost-cutting orders from Tallahassee to reduce property taxes, district board members say the expense of their flights is worth the convenience of their travel.
Board members note that they live across the agency's 16 counties and take time away from careers in law, finance and other professions to serve. They are appointed by the governor and are unpaid.
"Take it out of my salary," board member Nicolás J. Gutiérrez Jr. responded when asked about the cost of his flying from Miami to West Palm Beach for meetings. "This is a very justified expense. Taxpayers get the huge benefit of our time for free."
Two other Florida agencies with vast missions and territories don't fly their board members on government aircraft: the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and the State University System. And none of Florida's other four water management districts fly officials in for meetings, or even own aircraft.
Patsy C. Symons, a board member for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, drives about three hours each way to travel between her home in Arcadia and meetings at the district's headquarters in Brooksville, Hernando County. She is reimbursed for mileage.
Told that her counterparts in South Florida fly to meetings, Symons said: "That's an unbelievable service ... I think that's more than we would want to spend."
A review of three years of flight records for the South Florida district shows these flights and their fuel costs:
•Political trips in January 2007 and November 2006 for some board members to attend Gov. Charlie Crist's inaugural and the swearing-in of the House speaker. The two flights cost a total of $4,311.
•A March 29, 2006, trip for three board members on two helicopters for a "Women in History" celebration in West Palm Beach, costing $1,088.
•A Dec. 10, 2004, trip to take then-governing board member Pamela Brooks-Thomas from Boca Raton to a barbecue at the district's Fort Lauderdale field station, 25 miles away. The flight cost $241. Brooks-Thomas could not be reached for comment.
•Four trips in 2006 by then-governing board member Miya Burt-Stewart on district helicopters between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. Burt-Stewart said she was tagging along on flights passing over Fort Lauderdale to deliver other board members to and from Miami and that her stops didn't add to the $1,600 in total fuel costs.
Burt-Stewart argues that flights for board members are a benefit that makes top talent more likely to serve the district, which has a budget of almost $1.3 billion and more than 1,700 employees. "You have to give to get," she said. "You're not just talking about a small-time board."
WATER WINGS The majority of the district's daily helicopter flights are to take scientists, technicians and researchers to far-flung canals, levees and Everglades' water monitoring stations for testing, repairs and sampling.
The district's airplane mostly transports board members, administrators and top employees to board meetings, briefings with state regulators and policy makers in Tallahassee, and appointments at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' headquarters in Jacksonville.
It costs taxpayers almost $2.3 million annually to maintain, insure and operate the fleet, including $500,000 for fuel and $60,000 for hangar space at Palm Beach International Airport.
Another $900,000 is allocated to rent extra aircraft equipped to spray herbicides, land on water, and fill other needs.
The district has long been criticized for the use of its aircraft in a series of reports and by some lawmakers.
In 1985 a state Auditor General report found flights that "did not appear to be economically justified." At the time, the district had one plane and one helicopter. The audit recommended that the district sell the plane and fly commercial.
The following year, the district bought a new plane and now has three helicopters.
Through the years, the district has made some changes: improving records showing who is flying and why; and prohibiting family members from riding along. The agency, however, has not stopped flying its board members to meetings, conferences and political gatherings.
"There's a certain philosophy of let the taxpayers eat cake," said Dominic M. Calabro, president and chief executive officer of Florida TaxWatch, a private, nonpartisan Tallahassee group that spotlights waste in state spending. The organization has issued several studies critical of the district's airplane use and has recommended improvement.
The district's governing board, which levies taxes on residents across some of Florida's richest and most populated counties, has resisted calls to eliminate its air taxi service for years, Calabro said.
"They're not elected," Calabro said. "They're really not held to a very high standard by the governor that appointed them."
Four of the district's nine board members were appointed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush; Gov. Charlie Crist appointed five members within the past nine months. Crist's office declined to comment specifically on the district's use of aircraft.
"In general, the use of publicly-funded aircraft [by state officials] is helpful in covering this large state," said Erin Isaac, Crist's spokeswoman.
District Board Chairman Eric Buermann said most of the aircraft costs are fixed, such as maintenance and insurance, and would be paid whether or not board members flew.
Board flights add fuel costs — about $200,000 over the past three years — but Buermann said the expense is offset by the personal time board members save, as well as hotel and mileage reimbursement the district may pay instead.
"If we said, 'You all just drive' ... I don't think you would reduce one of those aircraft," Buermann said.
SOARING SOLO Often governing board members fly alone: a less cost-effective trip for taxpayers.
District rules discourage employees from flying alone, but the board members permit solo flights for themselves and top administrators.
Since October 2004, the agency's plane and helicopters flew with only one governing board member aboard 97 times, according to the Sun-Sentinel's analysis.
Nearly half the trips involved Michael Collins, the former board chairman who lives in Islamorada in the Florida Keys. He flew solo 46 times, at a cost of $16,611, the Sun-Sentinel found.
The day after Christmas in 2005, Collins flew alone from Marathon to Tallahassee to meet with then-Gov. Jeb Bush regarding Lake Okeechobee. Fuel for the flight north cost $1,075 and the return flight, which included two district staffers, cost $851. A Delta flight between Tallahassee and Miami last month would have cost $475 for one person.
Collins is the most frequent flier of the board members, taking a total of 137 district flights in the past three years. In addition to the 46 solo trips, Collins took another 91 flights with other passengers aboard, the Sun-Sentinel found.
He declined tocomment.
The district also frequently sends its plane to pick up the Orlando board member, Harkley Thornton. He took 17 solo flights over the three years, at a cost of about $14,049, the district's records show. On May 3, 2006, the district spent $1,717 to fly him from Orlando to West Palm Beach and back for meetings. There are no direct commercial flights between the two cities, which are 170 miles apart, or about a two and a half hour drive.
In November, the district's helicopter flew Thornton from West Palm Beach to Key Largo for its monthly meeting. Asked by the Sun-Sentinel why he didn't drive, Thornton took out his wallet and produced a picture of his three young children. He declined to comment further.
Governing Board member Charles Dauray of Estero came onto the board in April. By mid-September, he had flown 10 times alone, for more than $7,400. Once, it cost $1,400 to fly him solo round trip from Fort Myers to Stuart for a bill signing. Mileage reimbursement for the drive back and forth would have been about $120. "I don't have any comment," Dauray said.
SHORT HOPS For travel less than 200 miles, district policy urges employees to drive. But board members at times fly distances shorter than some commutes.
After a May 10 meeting, board member Shannon Estenoz flew from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale on a helicopter that was delivering board member Gutierrez and two staffers to Miami.
"My car was in Broward," she said, explaining that she'd flown the previous day to a meeting in Okeechobee and had stayed overnight in West Palm Beach.
In July 2006, district helicopters flew then-board chairman Kevin McCarty from Boca Raton to board meetings in Miami and back. The flights included four other district passengers and made stops in West Palm Beach and Key Largo.
On July 27, 2005, then-board member Irela Bagué flew alone on a district helicopter from Miami to Key West for a water conference, costing $644 for fuel. Two days later she flew back on a helicopter with three other passengers, at a cost of $799 for fuel.
At times, the district's aircraft puddle-jumps between two Miami airports to cut the commutes of two board members. Buermann, an attorney, is picked up at the Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport, close to his home, and board member Gutiérrez, another lawyer, climbs on at the Miami International Airport, nearer to his Coral Gables home.
The airports are about 20 miles apart.
Flying that 20 miles only takes a small amount of fuel, Buermann said, and helps him avoid getting bogged down in Miami's rush hour traffic.
"Time is money," he said.
Sun-Sentinel database specialist Ryan McNeill contributed to this report.