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First-class parking: Airport freebie list includes former politicians, other VIPs

May 1, 2006

Scott Jones could probably afford to buy the 1,800-space parking garage at Indianapolis International Airport, as one who's earned millions of dollars in patent income from voice mail technology he invented.

But why buy the garage? The Indianapolis multimillionaire shows up on a list of nearly 400 politicians and other VIPs entitled to free parking at the airport, a review of airport records shows.

Begun as a courtesy to a handful of elected officials decades ago, the free parking list has grown so long that if everyone granted a pass showed up at the same time they'd almost fill the $16-a-day, 450-space surface lot a stone's throw from the terminal entrance.

The electronic access cards granted to VIPs give them entry to the nearby, $20-a-day garage that connects conveniently to the terminal. Today, those free spaces host not only the political machine but also dozens of former politicians and even a party boss, along with executives and economic d eve l o p m e n t leaders. Nobody knows how many of these privileged parkers ever actually use their passes; airport officials say they don't track usage. They contend the impact on airport parking revenue that tops $23 million annually is minuscule.

Yet for a municipally owed airport lauded for its management acumen and progressive ways-the first U.S. airport to privatize all its operations-the list smacks of untidy housekeeping at best and patronage at worst. "It probably has the appearance someone is trying to curry favor," said Dan Orcutt, the longtime director of the airport who retired in the mid-1990s.

Airport records show that 387 parking cards were "active" at the end of 2005.

"That's high as far as I can remember," said Gor- don St. Angelo, an authority board member during the 1990s who now heads an educational foundation of Nobel laureate and economist Milton Friedman.

IBJ obtained the list in late December. Airport management firm BAA Indianapolis said on April 26 it has been culling the names of those who no longer qualify for free parking. That includes 26 "former elected officials."

Also losing his privileges as part of the review is Jones. He received his free parking card a couple of years ago, apparently for serving on the mayor's air service task force.

Airport officials declined to release the revised list, saying it hasn't been completed.

Former airport director Orcutt said free parking is a common practice among airports and "was always a very small number, extended as a courtesy."

"There was never any political pressure" to include certain individuals, Orcutt said of the list he inherited.

Bipartisan perks

The list includes both Democrats and Republicans. Every state senator and representative gets a parking pass. Members of Indiana's congressional delegation do as well. Same goes for the mayor of Indianapolis and his security detail and City-County Council members.

Elected officials in airport neighbor Hendricks County are eligible, too.

Current and former Indianapolis Airport Authority board members get free parking, as well. It's a small reward for the hundreds of hours the unpaid directors put in each year, said board Chairman Lacy Johnson.

Former Indianapolis mayors Steve Goldsmith and Bill Hudnut also have passes.

It would be simple if these were the only qualified groups. But over the years, the ranks of privileged parkers has grown seemingly out of control.

According to airport records, ex-elected officials with active passes at the end of last year included former Indiana congressman Baron Hill, former City-County Councilor Curt Coonrod, former Deputy Mayor Mike O'Connor and ex-state Budget Director Jean Blackwell, now Cummins Inc.'s chief financial officer.

"I guess I can see it as a courtesy if they are government officials, but ex-officials?" said Stefanie Miller, director of Common Cause of Indiana, a government accountability group.

"It shouldn't be a lifetime thing ... when they leave and go to their lobbying jobs, they shouldn't take that [privilege]. They no longer serve the public," she added.

When told there were two dozen former politicians on the list, Orcutt was surprised. "Huh? I don't know about that. ... I think the hard part is probably saying 'no' to people."

Some former elected officials on the list didn't even ring a bell with board Chairman Johnson, a Democratic political insider.

"Who?" Johnson said when read a list of names.

"When individuals are no longer in an elected status, then their passes are [supposed to be] terminated," Johnson said. "They just haven't been purged [yet]."

Tenuous connection

It's hard to reconcile names such as Dan Evans, CEO of Indianapolis hospital giant Clarian Health Partners with past airport policy.

Evans was out of the country. But spokesman Jon Mills said Evans probably got the pass as part of serving on the board of economic development group Indy Partnership.

Airport spokesman Terry Burns said Evans was among those being scratched from the list.

Jones, the founder of former Indianapolis technology firm Escient, couldn't be reached for comment.

Also recently culled from the list was former Bloomington Mayor John Fernandez, who served on an airport-related task force.

When given the parking card, "I was thinking, 'Dang!'" Fernandez said of the perk, but added that he didn't have any use for it.

Fernandez, somewhat facetiously, chalked up such benefits to the broader perks some public servants get. "There's one of the great things of being a legislator, former legislator. Health care. Parking. What else do you need?"

Also on the list are a handful of executives from General Motors Corp. and aircraft engine maker Rolls Royce.

Nor is it clear why Hendricks County Republican Party Chairman Peter Miller received a parking pass.

GOP head Miller said he probably qualified because Hendricks County has grown in importance because it will be the gateway to the new airport terminal scheduled to open in a few years. Miller said he used the pass once or twice.

Other people on the free parking list work for firms at the airport. They include Bob Palmer, head of the FedEx cargo hub, and several executives of Indianapolis-based Republic Airways. The parent of regional carrier Chautauqua Airlines recently moved its headquarters to the northwest side of the city.

Financial harm?

But while the free parking might spark debate-and envy-it's not clear it has a meaningful financial impact.

If anything, officials say, free airport parking means elected officials don't have to expense the cost to taxpayers.

And even if all 387 cards were used for one day twice a month for a year, that would add up to just $185,760 in lost revenue, a tiny fraction of airport parking revenue.

"Financially, it's spitting in the ocean in many respects," said a former employee of airport management firm BAA Indianapolis who once was in charge of maintaining the list. "But symbolically, you really want to keep a better handle on it."

Indeed, the symbolism is especially striking at a time airlines are paying higher rents and landing fees to help cover the cost of the $1 billion midfield terminal under construction at Indianapolis International.

"If this were, say, South Bend [airport] with 400 freebies, that's a hit. But Indianapolis? It's a minor thing. In terms of lost revenue, it's diminutive," said Michael Boyd, CEO of Evergreen, Colo.-based Boyd Group, which provides consulting services to airports and airlines.

"The airport is taking a revenue hit, but the taxpayer isn't," Boyd said.

Airport board member Mike Wells said the parking passes would be an issue if the parking garage frequently filled up, but it doesn't. Plus, "some people don't use [the passes]. Some people use them once."

The number of former elected officials on the list, however, surprised Wells.

Also surprised was Olga Medsker, a Fort Wayne resident at the airport recently with her husband, Melvin, to pick up a friend. Medsker has little stomach for perks for public officials, some of whom make better money than many of their constituents, she noted. "They end their term, they should end their privilege."

Some airports have more restrictive courtesy parking policies.

Like Indianapolis, the Louisville Regional Airport Authority grants current and former board members courtesy parking for life. Its policies on current elected officials are also similar. But there are no provisions for executives or business groups, except to the extent they're associated with a frequent traveler or other promotional programs.
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