Long promoted as a centerpiece of the county's economic development efforts and a growing hub for corporate travelers, Carroll County Regional Airport instead is struggling to overcome debt, an embezzlement scandal and management squabbles.
In a review of county budget documents and interviews with county and airport officials, The Sun found that:
WestAir II, the private company that runs the county-owned airport, owes more than $90,000 to the county for fuel, rent and other bills from 1998. Some county officials question the company's ability to remain solvent.
A former manager and vice president of WestAir was found guilty last month of stealing parts, tools and money from the company from 1995 to 1997. The manager had been the target of a state and federal investigation into shortages of parts, falsified records and improperly documented work that led to at least one emergency crash landing, authorities said.
In July, the majority owner of WestAir broke away after a dispute with co-owner June M. Poage, leaving the company's management unsettled.
The split has raised questions about WestAir's lease agreement with the county. County commissioners have not approved Poage's choice for a new business partner, saying they need more time to explore their partnership with WestAir.
"From the limited information we have and my financial background, I think the management has been less than stellar. It is a concern to me," said Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier. "I believe we need to be careful about what type of partnership we are involved in and that we have good management."
In fighting to keep WestAir's contract, Poage has asked the commissioners to look beyond her company's checkered financial past and remember its dedication to the airport, its community involvement and award-winning safety rec- ord.
Poage's relationship with the county dates to 1979, when Poage and her husband, Jack B. Poage, won a contract to run the airport. At the time, it was a small airstrip with limited services and facilities.
"It sat at the end of a dirt road," recalled June Poage.
Over the past 20 years, the airport has grown into a hub for recreational and business pilots. A new milelong runway, the sixth-largest nonmilitary runway in the state, was completed in 1994, allowing the airport to relieve Baltimore-Washington International in small-jet traffic. A new fuel storage system opened last year. And by the end of this year, seven hangars for corporate jets will be completed.
All these improvements have helped draw more pilots to the airport, steadily increasing air traffic to about 150,000 takeoffs and landings each year.
But Poage's tenure has also been marked by tragedy, bad luck and financial hardship.
In 1990, Jack Poage, a stunt pilot, was killed during an air show at Martin State Airport. Poage was taking his 1989 Pitts S-2B biplane through three corkscrew spins during a nose dive from 1,500 feet when he added a fourth spin to the maneuver. The plane flew too low, and before he could pull out of the dive, he crashed.
Since then, WestAir has been run almost single-handedly by June Poage. Harsh winters in 1994 and 1995 caused a drop in business at the airport. And by early 1995, WestAir built up a $35,000 debt to the county.
In 1995, Poage organized an air show in memory of her husband. But bad weather during the two-day event kept visitors away, putting her in deeper debt.
Despite the financial problems, the airport did not cut service, Poage said. In 1996, Carroll County Regional Airport was named the best publicly owned airport in the state. It achieved a perfect score during the annual state aviation inspection, pushing it ahead of regional airports in Hagerstown, Cumberland, Salisbury and Easton.
By 1998, WestAir had suffered another setback, when its former manager and vice president, Thomas Peter Scarborough, was arrested on multiple theft charges.
Investigators said Scarborough had done work on planes brought to WestAir, but after the customers paid, the computer entries had been deleted. They also found that some work had been improperly documented and that parts stolen from WestAir had been put on other planes, with falsified records and inspections made without WestAir's authority.
One private plane, which had been at WestAir for an annual inspection and repairs in February 1997, was involved within days after the work in a crash landing in Arizona that caused more than $11,000 in damage; there were no injuries. Last month, Scarborough was found guilty of stealing from the company. He is to be sentenced in November.
WestAir's most recent financial problems started in July 1998, when the company was short on its payments to the county for jet fuel, rent and commissions.
During the next four months, the debt grew to $90,000, including more than $66,000 in jet fuel.
Under WestAir's contract, the county would buy one month's worth of fuel and WestAir would sell it, paying the county the cost of the fuel plus 15 cents a gallon.
"I don't know what happened to the money. The county was buying the fuel but was not being paid," said Eugene C. Curfman, county comptroller.
Poage said most of her debt originated from the embezzlement scheme.
It cost her tens of thousands of dollars in parts and expenses, she said.
"Every time I turned around, there was another bill," she said.
To pull herself out of debt last year, Poage formed a partnership with local businessman David Lawrence. Lawrence was the majority owner of the new company, called WestAir II.
In May, WestAir II won a five-year contract with the county after a competitive bid process. But by July, the relationship between Poage and Lawrence had soured. Poage and Lawrence declined to discuss the details of their disagreement.
"We had a misunderstanding," Lawrence said.
Lawrence sold his share of WestAir II to Poage, who hopes to begin a partnership with Richard Jones, a Westminster doctor who gives pilots medical exams at the airport. But under WestAir II's contract with the county, any change in ownership must be approved by the county commissioners. The commissioners remain undecided.
Poage acknowledged that she could have made better management decisions. She said she should have bought insurance to protect her from the air show losses and should have been more careful choosing Scarborough as a manager.
She said she has always paid back the county. "They know I would do everything to get that debt paid," she said. "They know the struggles we have in aviation."
Jon Buck, who helps oversee 144 public and private airports for the Maryland Aviation Administration, said several airport operators like WestAir have struggled in the 1990s as the market has grown more competitive.
They live and die by their reputations, Buck said.
"A good management company is important to the success of an airport," Buck said, adding that despite its problems, the Carroll airport's reputation is good.
"I always stop in," said Buck, who recently chose to base his plane with WestAir. "You feel comfortable around there."
Pub Date: 10/18/99