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Info on state flights is lacking

FRANKFORT — State auditors could not find the reason for 15 of 39 state aircraft flights, taken last year, that they sampled for an audit.

Of those 15 with no stated purpose, four were from the office of then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher, six from the Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet, three from the Department of Aviation, and one each for the Transportation and Finance Administration cabinets.

The lack of stated purpose for use of state aircraft was among the findings of an audit of the Capital City Airport Division that state Auditor Crit Luallen released Wednesday.

The audit evaluated the division's administration of state-owned aircraft for general aviation purposes, ranging from trips by the governor to economic-development trips, from July 1, 2006, to June 30, 2007, during the Fletcher administration.

Luallen said she will examine a sampling of flights taken this year during Gov. Steve Beshear's administration as a follow-up to the audit.

The 36-page audit prompted Beshear to ask Transportation Secretary Joe Prather to meet with Justice Secretary J. Michael Brown, Energy Secretary Len Peters and Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer to analyze its findings and make a recommendation to him by Dec. 15 "as to the optimal organization and size of the state aircraft fleet," said Beshear spokeswoman Jill Midkiff.

Efforts to reach Fletcher for comment were not successful.

Luallen's audit calls for stronger policies and more efficient management of state-owned aircraft.

It found no formal process for setting usage rates, a failure to request or check passenger identification, a broad definition of who can fly on a state aircraft, an inability to control the use of air charter flights by state agencies and a decentralized fleet.

Mark Brown, a spokesman for the Transportation Cabinet, which oversees the airport division, said there has been more accountability of state flights since early 2008. Beshear took office in December 2007. Brown was referring to Beshear's guidelines, issued in February, that require the cost of travel for personal or political purposes to be documented on the flight forms.

Brown added that the Department of Aviation "has responded to the auditor's concerns and we have taken steps to address many of the issues raised in the audit." He said flight request forms have been updated to provide an account for the purpose of all flights.

State law requires agencies to submit an official approval signature, the purpose and destination of the trip, all passengers' names, and any personal usage by the governor or lieutenant governor. Luallen's audit noted that that the division prefers spoken requests, which might contribute to the missing written request forms. State law allows oral requests, but the agencies must follow up with a written request within five days of the flight.

Auditors were able to find the final destinations of the 15 flights with no stated purpose on the flight cards filed by the pilots. However, the actual purposes of the flights were not included on these forms. Without proper information, the audit said, "it is not known whether a trip is for personal or official business and the public cannot be assured that state resources are being used efficiently and in compliance with the law."

The division, under the Department of Aviation in the Transportation Cabinet, owns six of the state's 16 aircraft, including five fixed-wing aircraft and one helicopter. The Justice Cabinet, the Department for Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture own the other 10 aircraft.

The division operates and maintains state aircraft and provides general air charter services to state agencies. The other three agencies own and operate aircraft for specific missions such as drug enforcement, aerial photography and applying farm chemicals.

The audit noted the decentralized ownership of Kentucky's aircraft, saying it results in overlapping services among agencies.

The audit also recommended:

■ That a formal policy be developed to set fees for usage of state aircraft.

■ That the broad allowances for state aircraft travel be amended to better protect state resources and provide stronger management controls.

State law makes it possible for nearly anyone to travel on state aircraft at the expense of state agencies, the audit said.

■ That the division develop an official process to verify the identification of passengers boarding state aircraft and develop better billing procedures to each state agency.

The audit showed that the cost of five of the 39 flights sampled totaled $13,368 and agencies had not been billed.

■ That the division work with the Finance Cabinet to ensure other agencies are not able to purchase charter flight services without first contacting the division.

Auditors found no restrictions that would stop an agency from paying for air charter services rather than initially contacting the division about flight needs.

■ That the Transportation Cabinet conduct a review of the overall aviation needs of state agencies to determine whether the state should replace the current aircraft fleet.

Kentucky has the oldest general aviation fleet of any neighboring state, the audit said. The average age of Kentucky's general aviation aircraft, which includes the six aircraft owned by the division and the Natural Resources aircraft frequently employed for general aviation purposes, is 34.5 years.

Two Kentucky aircraft are more than 40 years old, and most of the other aircraft are 1970s models. The age of the air fleets in surrounding states varies from 28.1 years to 7.6 years.

Aircraft aged 30 to 40 years can show signs of fatigue, the audit said. It added that older aircraft are less efficient because trips take longer.

The state airport division said it would like to lower the average age of its fleet from 34.5 years to 20 years.

■ That the state determine exactly how many pilots it needs, and whether private contractors could be used for a smaller pilot pool.

The state employs five pilots. The audit said that last year the pilots flew 17.6 percent of their regular work hours and it could not be determined how much of the rest of their work time was on flight-related duties.

"Given the low number of flight hours per total work hours, it is likely there is a large amount of 'downtime' where pilots are not performing expected flight-related duties," the audit said.

Salaries, benefits and overtime pay for the five pilots currently total $430,768, said the audit. The state is paying about $75,815 for the pilots' in-the-air flight time and $354,953 for their remaining hours.

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