Kern: MidAmerica deals would not have happened under County Board control

News-DemocratJuly 29, 2013 

St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern said he believes recent business ventures at MidAmerica airport would not have happened if the County Board, as opposed to a commission, would have been responsible for negotiating with business leaders.

Kern's response stems from proposed legislation that would switch control of MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah from a seven-member commission to the 29-member St. Clair County Board. The board granted control to the appointed members of the Public Building Commission in 1996, about a year prior to the airport's official opening.

Kern said he was elected to the board after the decision was made, but he believes the board's "thought process" at the time was to have the airport overseen by a group of business leaders.

"We've had a lot of agreements that have happened since that time," Kern said. "I do know that the recent negotiations I've been part of, which were Allegiant Airlines, Boeing (Company) and North Bay Produce, I don't believe would be here if we were under a scenario as was presented in that ordinance.

"You have to be able to negotiate a process like that ... and so they need to be able to talk to a group of business people and work to negotiate not in a political setting. Not 29 elected officials who are going to have different agendas. They need to be able to go to a business entity like the Public Building Commission to negotiate."

Four board members, two Democrats and two Republicans, filed the legislative change with the St. Clair County Clerk last Wednesday. In order to be considered for final approval by the full County Board, the proposed legislation needed to be submitted 10 days prior to the meeting on Monday.

The proposed changes would make the entire County Board the final authority for the airport, controlling all finances and economic incentive programs. Currently, the commission has broad powers to oversee the daily operations of the airport.

Democratic board members Frank Heiligenstein, of Freeburg, and Larry Stammer Jr., of Belleville, along with Republicans Ed Cockrell, of New Athens, and David Tiedemann, of Shiloh, sponsored the proposed legislation. The four sponsors said the elected members of the board should have control of the airport for a host of reasons, including ensuring transparency and accountability concerning the airport.

Board members debated the measure during a meeting of the board's judicial committee prior to the full board meeting. Sixteen board members attended the committee meeting.

MidAmerica airport has a budget of more than $5.5 million and the county anticipates paying the commission more than $4 million lease expenses related to the airport, according to the county's 2013 budget.

Kern also suggested the issue be placed within the county's Economic Development Committee instead of the Judiciary Committee. One of the board members sponsoring the legislation, Frank Heiligenstein, chairs the Judiciary Committee.

"I think this committee is designed to look at ordinances as they stand, not as part of a change in policy for the county," Kern said. "I think this issue would be better served in the Economic Development Committee. The one Tim Cantwell (MidAmerica director) comes to on a quarterly basis and very well could come to more if that was the decision that was made."

Heiligenstein said the Judiciary Committee has made changes to ordinances since at least 1976 when he first became a member.

In a 5 to 2 vote, members of the Judiciary Committee voted to move the debate to the Economic Development Committee. County Board member Roy Mosley Jr., a Democrat representing Alorton and part of East St. Louis, made the motion and fellow Democratic Board member Joan McIntosh of Washington Park seconded the motion.

County Board members are being grilled by residents about the airport and need to be better informed about the airport, Heiligenstein said.

"We would feel more comfortable, and able to grasp and work with any items on the plate going forward concerning economic incentives," Heiligenstein said.

Cantwell is discussing all those things during meetings of the Economic Development Committee and Public Building Commission, Kern said.

"When an item is flushed out to a point where it looks like it might happen, he then discusses that with the committee," Kern said. "The issue the newspaper brought up certainly was not ripe for discussion. A number of people have expressed interest in that property."

Kern references a proposal from Covenant Aerospace to create a business park on about 250-acres of property, currently owned by the county, near MidAmerica. Details of the plan were outlined in documents the commission provided to the News-Democrat and available on Covenant Aerospace's website.

Cockrell said the meetings Kern directed board members towards did not disclose enough information.

"But when County Board members are prohibited from sitting in executive sessions of the Public Building Commission to find out what the intricacies of the deal are and we read about it in the paper like everybody else does, I feel short-sighted because I'm a representative of the taxpayers," Cockrell said. "I would like to be more informed. I went to the (Economic Development) committee meeting last Tuesday and not a word abut the proposal was mentioned."

In other news, the County Board approved a $50,000 contract with the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois as a defense against any federal effort to close Scott Air Force Base. The contract hires the Council to serve for a year as coordinators for the so-called Retention and Expansion of Scott Air Force Base Task Force.

The intent of the task force is to retain the base in the face of federal Department of Defense hearings on ways to cut costs. Similar efforts fought for the base, the metro-east's largest employer, in 1995 and 2005.

The current federal defense bill does not include such hearings from the Base Re-alignment and Closure Commission until at least 2015.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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