Editor's note: In a recent column, Ray Hartmann questioned whether St. Charles County and others outside St. Louis deserved a say in what the city does with its airport. St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, name checked in the column, had a few thoughts. Here is his response:
Regarding the many issues, including privatization, surrounding the future of Lambert Airport, Ray Hartmann was correct when he recently explained in the Riverfront Times, “Lots of history and irony here.” First, the history. The City of St. Louis paid $136,000 to buy Maj. Albert Lambert's airport in 1928 and provided $7.2 million to build the main terminal, which opened in 1956. That was the last “check” the city wrote, and since that time the airport has been supported by checks written by the federal government and by you and me, to cover landing fees when we fly.
Since it owned the property the city could collect its six percent utilities tax on airport revenue. When Congress prohibited such exactions from airports in 1982, a “grandfather clause” allowed the city to continue the practice and today diverts $6.5 million in airport revenue annually to its coffers. The last crucial fact is the city is a political subdivision of the state, from whose statutes it derives its powers. I have no problem with Mr. Hartmann’s suggestion that the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council study airport governance. But I would prefer an open and transparent debate in the General Assembly, that could actually change the governance structure. Should it do that, it would be necessary to determine what percentage of the airport has been paid for by the city and, after considering the value of the revenue it has extracted over the years, guarantee the city has made a profit on its investment. “After all, we are not communists.”
Airport governance last became an issue after the city unilaterally decided to build a controversial new runway that took half of the City of Bridgeton. It was to be paid for by the many patrons the airport served as a major airline HUB at that time. With the support of all the senators from St. Louis, St. Charles, Jefferson and Franklin counties, I passed an amendment that would have established a Missouri Regional Airport Commission. While that legislation did not pass, a discussion of regional governance ensued that led to the creation by the city of an Airport Commission that included representatives from St. Louis, St. Charles and Illinois counties. While the city continued to appoint a majority, through our representative airport patrons from St. Charles County we have had input and have kept abreast of the significant progress the airport has made under the leadership if Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebrugge over the last decade. Those accomplishment are set out in detail in the city’s RFQ to those wanting to bid on privatization of the airport. Unfortunately, Airport Commission members apparently will not be part of the decision-making process on privatization.
The city’s RFQ clearly states, “Net proceeds may be allocated to essential infrastructure investments or any other purposes that the City may consider appropriate thereby enhancing the municipal government’s continued ability to provide essential City services.” Given the history of the city’s stewardship of the airport, can those of us who will continue to pay off the $600 million debt on a little-used runway every time we fly, trust the Board of Aldermen to do what is in our best interest? If not, who should represent the interest of airport patrons who do not live in the city?
Now for the irony! Mr. Hartmann thinks airport patrons who reside in St. Charles County deserve no representation because we have not raised our taxes to support the Zoo-Museum District. Some of us believe those who attend the zoo, but do not pay taxes to support it, should pay a user fee like we do when we use the airport. St. Charles County offered the Zoo Association 450 acres of free land near Wentzville and nearly a million dollars a year for a conservation facility. Because the association instead purchased land for $7 million dollars in St. Louis County, whose voters passed a sales tax increase to pay for it, Mr. Hartmann would still deny us a seat at the table.
Mr. Hartmann would also disqualify airport patrons from St. Charles County because in 1996 the majority of them did not vote for a sales tax to extend Metrolink, little of whose cost would be covered by user fees, to St. Charles County. What about the 48.5 percent who did vote for the tax, should they not have a right to be heard? That same year, a similar tax increase to expand Metrolink received only 42 percent in St. Louis County. Did the 58 percent who voted “no” also lose their right to be heard on the future of the airport? Ironically, when the tax did not pass in St. Charles County, the federal money available to the region for mass transit went to Metro to build the Cross-County Line. After $126 million in overruns, Metro spent $21 million in legal fees to sue the contractors but lost and ended up paying $6 million to settle the case.
Finally, what about the twenty percent who quit riding Metrolink and busses over the last five years. Have they forfeited their right to be represented on what I think will be the most important decision the region will make about our most important regional asset?
Steve Ehlmann is the St. Charles County Executive.