St. Clair County Board members want control of MidAmerica

News-DemocratJuly 25, 2013 

File photo of an Allegiant jet at MidAmerica Airport in 2012.

ZIA NIZAMI — znizami@bnd.com Buy Photo

A bipartisan push from St. Clair County Board members would grant the board control of the county-owned MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah.

The measure would bring the airport under the authority of the board as opposed to the appointed members of the Public Building Commission, which currently oversees the airport. The proposal was filed Wednesday with the St. Clair County Clerk and should be considered by the full county board on Monday.

Four board members, two Democrats and two Republicans, co-signed the proposed legislation. The law's sponsors are Democrats Frank Heiligenstein of Freeburg and Larry Stammer Jr. of Belleville along with Republicans Ed Cockrell of New Athens and David Tiedemann of Shiloh.

"The proposed changes ensure the appropriate transparency and accountability needed," Cockrell said during a Wednesday afternoon news conference. "This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. This is a taxpayer issue."

Those proposed changes include:

* The entire County Board becomes the final authority for spending at MidAmerica airport.

* The airport director, currently Tim Cantwell, would become an officer of the county facing appointment and approval from the County Board.

* The board would review and approve all proposed economic incentive programs.

* The airport director would advise the board of all airport activities during the board's monthly meeting.

County Board Chairman Mark Kern, approached during a walk Wednesday evening near downtown Belleville, declined to comment directly on Cockrell's proposal. Kern said any measure related to the airport "must go through committee" and that the county board has a contract with the commission.

The News-Democrat called or left messages with 22 of the county board's 29 members. Eight of the county board members, including two Democrats, who were interviewed said they supported the idea of the county board taking direct control over the airport.

County Board member Dennis Renner, a Democrat representing O'Fallon, opposed the proposal. Renner said he believed the six-member Public Building Commission should continue overseeing the airport.

"I don't think that's a good idea," Renner said. "There's way too many board members to make those decisions."

County Board member Steve Reeb, R-Belleville, said it's imperative that the county board acquire direct control over airport operations. "We're elected by the taxpayers and those are the folks who should have a say in what goes on at that airport."

Frank Heiligenstein, D-Freebrug, also supported the idea of the county gaining control over airport decision-making.

"I think the full county board should be informed so we can be accountable to what's going on," Heiligenstein said.

Dixie Seibert, D-Belleville, said she would "probably" support Cockrell's proposal, "unless our chairman (Kern) doesn't support it."

Stammer said the bipartisan measure would ensure board members meet their responsibility to be completely informed about the airport.

"We feel this is appropriate to ensure the airport is run by the County Board," Stammer said. "One hundred percent of our constituents believe we are doing this already. They would be amazed this is not happening."

Tiedemann said the board must be informed about the airport because its members set the amount of property tax revenue collected for its support. The Public Building Commission controls "several hundreds of thousands of dollars" in discretionary funding that should be under County Board control, he added.

County Board member Nick Miller, a Lebanon Republican, said he fully supported the measure because the airport was one of the largest single expenses in the county budget.

The board members cite the lack of communication regarding a planned business park near MidAmerica as the latest example of the need for additional oversight.

Board members from both political parties did not know of plans for the proposed business park, which would be centered upon the production of freight cargo airplanes. The park would create 2,180 jobs, according to the developer's website, and be located south of Interstate 64 along Illinois 4 in Mascoutah.

"We all sat in a room for 40 minutes and not a word was mentioned of the (business park)," Cockrell said, referencing a quarterly meeting of board members and Cantwell.

The board also needs control of economic incentives given to businesses, Cockrell said. He said the board would be able to better vet developers to avoid problems like those encountered with the county's dealing with New York businessman John G. Hewitt.

The Public Building Commission gave Hewitt $250,000 in cash as an incentive to a build a warehouse at MidAmerica. At the time, the Internal Revenue Service and the state of New York were seeking more than $1.3 million in back taxes from Hewitt.

Hewitt never built the warehouse and the county is still attempting to recover the $250,000.

The county also provided $1.3 million in loans and incentives to Great Plains Airlines, based in Tulsa, in 2003. After flying out of MidAmerica for four years, the airline filed for bankruptcy and left the county with a $750,000 loss.

News-Democrat Reporter Mike Fitzgerald contributed to this report. Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/DanKelleyBND.

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