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Airport Privatization Bill Heads To St. Louis Aldermen After 3 Hours And 21 Amendments

The city's Ways and Means committee approved a bill that would put the issue of privatizing St. Louis Lambert International Airport before voters in November. The bill must now be approved by the full Board of Aldermen.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
The city's Ways and Means Committee approved a bill that would put the issue of privatizing St. Louis Lambert International Airport before voters in November. The bill must now goes to the full Board of Aldermen.

The aldermanic committee that oversees the city of St. Louis’ finances endorsed a proposal on Thursday that would allow voters to decide whether to lease St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

After a sometimes contentious three-hour discussion, the Board of Aldermen's Ways and Means Committee approved an amended version of the bill by a margin of 11 to 1. Alderwoman Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, cast the vote against the bill.

The proposal will now advance to the city’s full Board of Aldermen for a vote. If approved there, voters could decide in November whether to privatize the region’s major airport.

“This gives us the opportunity to put something on the ballot that reflects our views [and] also reflects the wishes and needs of the community at large,” said Lewis Reed, president of the Board of Aldermen and the bill’s sponsor. 

Under the terms of the bill, a portion of the funds from the $1.7 billion lease agreement would be allocated to revitalize impoverished north city neighborhoods.

But the proposal has come under fire from some city residents and activists, who argue that it is a high-risk plan that primarily benefits special interests.

More than a dozen people testified against the bill Thursday, including the city’s Comptroller Darlene Green.

The proposal “has been carefully crafted for special interests,” Green said. “This is not about making sure that the people in north St Louis and the neighborhood that I live in will have finally gotten enough money or better city services to fix up our neighborhood. That's not what this is about.”

During public testimony, Danielle D’Onfro, a law professor at Washington University, cautioned the board that it is a financially risky time to cede control of the airport.

“The timing could not be more wrong from a purely financial perspective,” D’Onfro said. “The money that we could get today from privatizing the airport may not be what we could get in a year or in two years.”

After hearing public testimony, the committee voted on 21 separate amendments to the bill, including a provision that prohibits Forest Park and Tower Grove Park from receiving any funding from the lease agreement. Another amendment earmarks some revenue for projects in neighborhoods north of Delmar Boulevard.

The ballot initiative is one of two competing proposals to privatize the airport. 

The other, which is organized by the St. Louis city NAACP and the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council, is backed by local financier Rex Sinquefield.

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

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Shahla Farzan is a PhD ecologist and science podcast editor at American Public Media. She was previously a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.