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.