The Westmoreland County Airport Authority board has a new chairperson at the helm after two county commissioners’ recent vote to oust a pair of board members.

Janice Smarto will take over as board chair and Vince Finoli, who previously served as secretary, will be vice chairman.

Last month, Commissioners Gina Cerilli Thrasher and Doug Chew appointed Rich Pologruto and Paul Whittaker to the airport board in place of chairman Paul Puleo and Donald “Doc” Giffin, whose five-year terms had expired. Commissioner Sean Kertes voted against the board changes.

Smarto, an area realtor, has served as chairwoman and vice chair at past authority meetings. She said at Tuesday’s monthly meeting that the authority “will move forward. We’re here to serve the county and make the best decisions that we can. We work hard and give our time.”

Thrasher, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said her vote to replace Puleo and Giffin was “not personal” after they and five other board members in June moved to extend a lease with DeNunzio’s Italian Chophouse, which has had exclusive rights to run the facility’s dining concession for the last 17 years.

Thrasher has repeatedly expressed issues with the board’s unwillingness to meet with commissioners ahead of making that decision.

“We asked to meet with the board to go over ideas to make this (restaurant) contract more airport-friendly. We made it very clear that, if they want to continue with DeNunzio’s, they can do that,” Thrasher said.

“The airport authority refused to meet with us. They rushed this contract through a year in advance.”

Thrasher has said she will seek to remove other board members who opposed efforts to open the space to a new vendor, or at the very least, renegotiate a better lease before approving it.

She has also said that authority board appointments aren’t intended to last a lifetime.

Puleo’s term expired in January, while Giffin represented Palmer on the board for years and replaced the Latrobe golf legend on the board following his death in 2016. Although his term expired in January 2020, Giffin continued to serve on the board.

Giffin’s replacement is Rich Pologruto, a Scottdale businessman, and Paul Whittaker, a contractor who owns a private airfield in New Alexandria, will replace Puleo.

DeNunzio’s manager Anthony M. DeNunzio II spoke during Tuesday’s public comment period and expressed disappointment in Puleo and Giffin’s removal from the board.

“Often times, their contributions do not get the recognition they deserve. With Paul and Doc, we’re losing two great contributors and we will sincerely miss them,” he said.

Reading from a statement, DeNunzio said he is concerned about the long-term future of his restaurant and the Unity Township airport. He also said commissioners’ are not upholding the values of Palmer, whom DeNunzio said he idolized growing up.

“My positive and inspirational thoughts born from our airport’s namesake have been erased by our county commissioners,” he said. “I’m greatly concerned that the foundation that was set, established and carried out by Arnold Palmer and the airport authority board members is in jeopardy.

“I’m concerned with the long-term future of Denunzio’s Italian Chophouse and the well being of our employees. Furthermore, I’m concerned with the airport and its future. Gabe (Monzo) and the airport authority board know how to run this place … I’m hopeful that our county commissioners will use common sense and educated decisions to benefit our county moving forward.”

Under the new five-year lease, DeNunzio’s will pay $7,447.50 per month for the restaurant space, which includes utilities and is subject to adjustment with each renewal of the lease. The restaurant also pays $500 per month for the use of a banquet room and $750 for the snack bar.

Prior to the contract, DeNunzio’s had been paying just $4,000 per month for rent and utilities and $500 a quarter for the banquet room.

In other business Tuesday, authority executive director Gabe Monzo said rapid COVID-19 testing is expected to be available for outbound passengers at the Arnold Palmer airport in about two weeks. The 30-minute PCR swab test, administered through PAS Medical Laboratory of Jeannette, costs $120 and results will be available the same day.

“This is available now, and we’re going to take advantage of it,” he said. “They can do a 30-minute test where the people can sit in their cars and wait for the results."

Passengers can schedule to be tested at the airport by calling 1-800-524-3414 or visiting www.pamedlabs.com. Monzo stressed that those interested in the testing should not call the airport.

Also, engineer Scott Kunselman reported the authority has been awarded a $600,000 state grant toward a pair of airport projects, including the installation of upgraded electronic advertising and promotional signage at airport property at routes 30 and 981. The other portion of the funding will be used for new safety features for storing de-icing fluids at the airport fuel farm.

Kunselman added that the lone outstanding issue with the second phase to widen and strengthen the airport runway is being addressed. The issue is tied to precision approach path indicator (PAPI), which are visual lights on each end of the runway that help guide aircraft individually. Kunselman said the lights were slightly out of alignment when first installed, but were within Federal Aviation Administration parameters and will be adjusted to meet project specifications. 

The board will also consider taking action on refinancing the airport authority’s existing debt.

During a presentation Tuesday, Jay Wenger of Susquehanna Group Advisors Inc. said the authority’s current debt runs out in 2031 and suggested that it initially pursue a bank loan and bond issue to find the best result. He noted that debt refinancing savings would be approximately $200,000, or about 4% of the authority’s outstanding debt.

In the monthly traffic report provided by the authority, the Arnold Palmer airport served 15,765 passengers in September and 185,210 passengers this year to date.

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