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Close airport, pay $5 million on debt, and taxpayers are still ahead

Belleville News Democrat

Sunday, October 1, 2017  |  Editorial  |  By The Editorial Board

Airports (4) , Metro East (65)
“We continue to move in the right direction. The more flights we have, the more landing fees, and concessions and other things ... continue to move the airport operating (to) a break-even level.”

That was St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern a year ago, when the 2015 audit came out and revealed the costs of MidAmerica St. Louis Airport to county taxpayers. The audit reported $6.5 million was transferred from the county coffers to the airport, which was down from $7.6 million in 2014.

Well guess what: The 2016 audit is out and shows an $8.29 million subsidy for 2016. That’s 25 percent more than the 2015 amount of $6.63 million, which was originally reported by the county to be $6.5 million.

Apparently air passengers have not been buying enough corn curls and cola. Kern was right about revenue increasing — it was up $1.6 million last year, but it was outstripped by airport spending.

It makes sense. More passengers, more flights and more parking are increasing costs — with the decision to charge for parking even showing potential to add to the deficit with $850,000 in initial costs and as much as $72,000 a year to manage it. Because the airport business model is upside down and passenger service will never get the airport out of red ink, increasing the airport’s use only increases the amount taxpayers are forced to donate towards it.

St. Clair County and Madison County have nearly identical populations and property tax burdens to pay for county government. Yet in St. Clair County the patrol deputies ask for a penny sales tax so they don’t have to scramble across the county to the next call, inmates sleep on a gym floor, county employees make 25 percent less than counterparts in neighboring Madison County, bicyclists have 25 miles of trails rather than Madison County’s 130 miles, etc.

Ya think maybe that $8.29 million subsidy has something to do with those differences?

You could call your county board member to complain, but they have no control over the airport. Kern appointees on the Public Building Commission make decisions about how your taxes are spent at MidAmerica.

This is where we hear about how MidAmerica saved Scott Air Force Base. That was 12 years ago. Shut it down today and you still must pay off federal money used to build the airport — one financial decision County Board members were allowed to make in 2015, when they refinanced and ballooned the debt from $40 million to $88 million by extending payments 30 years. The airport will have been open 50 years by the time that debt is paid.

Even so, county taxpayers would still be ahead if the airport were shuttered or given to the Air Force. The debt payment was about $5 million last year, so had MidAmerica stopped operating and not needed that $8.29 million infusion then taxpayers would have been ahead $3.29 million.

Oh, right. MidAmerica is about cargo, and not passengers. Any day now we’ll be flying electronics and fresh carp between Mascoutah and Ningbo, China. That pipe dream cost taxpayers $2.7 million for consultants, but now the delay is a major expansion of the Chinese airport that put little MidAmerica off their radar screen. It’s easy to miss this cargo operation, which now moves 2 percent of what it once did.

But we’re sure county leaders know best and MidAmerica’s salvation rests with China. Our fearless county leaders sure seem to be nurturing an affinity for our foreign trade brothers.

They have a little red book. We have a lot of red ink.