St. Clair County Board member wants MidAmerica director fired

News-DemocratOctober 23, 2013 

MidAmerica Airport

A St. Clair County Board member is calling for the dismissal of the director at the helm of the financially-struggling MidAmerica airport in Mascoutah.

Republican Nick Miller, of Lebanon, said Director Tim Cantwell has had some success but has failed to deliver on the parameters of the job -- in particular, keeping the airport out of the red. The county-owned MidAmerica St. Louis Airport has never broken even since beginning operations in 1998.

Cantwell has led the airport since 2002 with an annual salary of about $122,000. Cantwell and County Board Chairman Mark Kern could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

"At some point you have to say the direction we are going in isn't working," Miller said. "It's time for new ideas and a fresh view of the situation. Tim is operating on the same ideas and views he's had for years and it's obvious it is not working."

County money subsidized the airport more than $28.7 million in the past five years. The subsidies have caused the county to operate in the red for the past three years, according to county audits.

"At the end of the day, it's still costing us millions of dollars annually," Miller said. "We can't sustain that. Any business that hemorrhaged that much cash and failed every single year, they'd have gone out of business but that's not an option with this obviously."

County officials subsidized airport operations with about $5.6 million in county money last year. The financial losses handicap money for other needs, such as addressing overcrowding at the St. Clair County Jail, Miller said.

"It comes up all the time -- why can't the county do this? Well, we could if the county weren't hemorrhaging money to fund the airport," Miller said. "Every bit of county spending always comes back to the airport."

Republican County Board member Craig Hubbard, of O'Fallon, said he's "not a big fan" of Cantwell and would like to see a leadership change, but added it would not happen unless Kern sought the dismissal.

"As they say in Washington, it probably won't get out of committee," Hubbard said. "Remember Cantwell serves at the pleasure of Mark Kern. It's a simple matter of if Mark doesn't want it, it's not going to happen."

Cantwell's position is appointed by Kern and faces oversight from the Public Building Commission. The commission oversees the airport.

Republican County Board member Ed Cockrell, of New Athens, said he was a member of the board committee that hired Cantwell.

"I'm all for changes at the airport. He can't get the job done, he probably needs to go," Cockrell said. "I'm not blaming him totally, that may be the direction he's been given (by Kern and the commission). He may just be doing what he's told. Some changes are needed and they have to start at the Public Building Commission."

Four County Board members, two Democrats and two Republicans, have pushed since July for the board to have the authority to reject the appointment of the airport director. Other St. Clair County department heads face approval from the County Board every two years.

The proposal is part of a broader effort by the four board members for the County Board to have more control of the airport instead of the appointed members of the commission. The bipartisan proposal is co-sponsored by Democrats Frank Heiligenstein of Freeburg and Larry Stammer Jr., of Belleville, Republican David Tiedemann, of Shiloh, and Cockrell.

Heiligenstein said he had not considered replacing Cantwell. He added the board should have the authority to approve the director's appointment because of the position's responsibilities. The airport had a $5.5 million budget in 2013.

"No matter who is in the position, the County Board should have approval of that particular person in office," Heiligenstein said.

Stammer said the proposed ordinance would provide the transparency needed to determine Cantwell's value for taxpayers and the airport's value as a whole.

"As any other employee in St. Clair County, the County Board should determine whether the value of an employee is positive for taxpayers or negative," Stammer said. "The ordinance proposed provides for us to vote on the retention of Tim Cantwell as with other department heads."

"The feedback I've received from many in the business community and my constituents is they are concerned taxpayers are not getting their money's worth from Mr. Cantwell," Stammer added. Stammer said he could not fully judge Cantwell's performance unless more information is provided through the proposed ordinance.

While the County Board might not be able to dismiss Cantwell, the board does control the budget providing for his salary. If Cantwell remains in the position, Miller said the board could remove his compensation from next year's budget beginning in January 2014.

Miller called upon the Public Building Commission to consider dismissing Cantwell.

"If they (the commissioners) want the responsibility of managing and maintaining public property, that means they have the responsibility to do so judiciously," Miller said. "In this case, that means making sure they are not hemorrhaging taxpayer dollars. One of the ways you can work to achieve the end goal of being in the black is a change in leadership, change in management."

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

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