More details of Lambert privatization come out in hearing | St. Louis Public Radio

More details of Lambert privatization come out in hearing

Sep 28, 2017

A few more details are emerging related to the city's consideration of whether to privatize St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

The Missouri House Special Committee on Urban Issues held a hearing in Clayton on Wednesday regarding airport privatization. Linda Martinez, who is Mayor Lyda Krewson’s deputy mayor of development, and airport Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebrugge took questions from the committee.

Rep. Dan Stacy, R-Blue Springs, asked whether a regional authority would stay in place if the airport is privatized. Hamm-Niebruegge said while the current 17-member commission includes members from St. Louis, St. Louis County, St. Charles County and St. Clair County, a private operator would replace that.

Credit via Flickr/Michael R. Allen

“If you’re talking about an operator coming that would look at a long-term lease, there wouldn’t be the anticipation that there would be a regional authority. That would be a different process,” she said.

The city is early in the process that officials have said will likely take 18 months or longer. A request for proposal was recently released for an advisory team that would help seek private investors and bids from operators to lease the airport. The deadline for that is Oct. 20.

Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, asked who would make the final decision on whether to privatize the airport. Martinez said it would be a multi-faceted process that would include:

  • Approval by airlines that represent 65% of passengers boarding planes at Lambert.
  • Approval by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen (either with a simple majority or 2/3 majority, which the mayor’s office said is not yet clear.)
  • Approval by the St. Louis Board of Estimate and Apportionment (which comprises the mayor, the president of the Board of Aldermen and the comptroller.)
  • Approval by the FAA.

Grow Missouri is paying for the application process and will be reimbursed if the city goes through with privatization. The organization, funded by billionaire Rex Sinquefield, has said in the past that privatization would likely go to a vote of the people. At this week's meeting, Martinez did not mention such a vote;  the mayor’s office, when contacted later, said there would be a better sense of the process once the advisory team is in place.

The state representatives also asked what would happen with the airport’s current employees and minority participation requirements. Hamm-Niebrugge said 550 employees report to her, and she expects a private operator would keep most of those employees.

“They need those employees; they need their expertise. They still have to run an airport day to day,” she said.

Hamm-Niebrugge said union contracts would have to stay in place under FAA guidelines and that retention of current employees could be part of the requirements laid out in the search for a private operator.

Martinez emphasized the operating standards would be key in both minority participation and employee retention.

“I can’t see somebody else coming in and saying we’re going to start from scratch,” she said. “We’re going to have standards about inclusion and standards about employment in these operating standards that will be included in the request for qualification and request for proposal for potential leesees,” she said.

Rep. Courtney Allen Curtis, D-Ferguson, said he was concerned that a private operator might choose to again expand the airport affecting communities that have already lost land and residents in prior airport expansions.

“My community can’t stand any more damage,” he said.

With more than 4,100 acres and at 42% of the airport's capacity, Hamm-Niebruegge said no matter the scenario, she doesn’t see the "need to enlarge our airfield ever.” 

“The scary thought is that when a private entity comes in they’re potentially less accountable depending on how we write up the RFPs and the RFQs,” Curtis said.

St. Louis NAACP President Adolphus Pruitt also spoke at the hearing. He told the committee that the organization wants to see a charter amendment codifying how funds from such a lease be used.

“It may St. Louis’ largest assets so if you’re going to privatize our largest asset and at the same time derive a significant return in dollars, we want to be sure those dollars are reinvested in a way that helps all citizens of St. Louis,” he said after the meeting.

Pruitt said the NAACP wants to be sure minority participation requirements also are strengthened.

Follow Maria on Twitter: @radioaltman