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Public Vote On Leasing St. Louis Airport Advances After Long, Bitter Debate

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 St. Louis Board of Aldermen on Monday gave first-round approval to a bill that would ask voters if they want to authorize a lease of St. Louis-Lambert International Airport, shown here in 2018.

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen has given its initial approval to asking voters in November whether they want to authorize a long-term lease of St. Louis-Lambert International Airport.

Monday’s 14-11 vote came after more than six hours of debate. Opponents said the measure was jammed through to benefit political donors at a meeting ostensibly called to vote on the 2021 budget. Supporters said opponents were ignoring the needs of impoverished wards. The legislation sets the minimum lease price at $1.7 billion.

“How can Black lives matter to you when you vote consistently no against any and everything to benefit them?” said Alderwoman Tammika Hubbard, D-5th Ward. “Every time we try to come up with anything for north St. Louis there’s this boogeyman. I’ll stand up and battle with boogeymen. I don’t care. If you’re going to do something for my community, something that nobody else is trying to come up with, let’s dance with the boogeyman.”

Hubbard was referring to the involvement of billionaire financier Rex Sinquefield, who funded an initial exploration of airport privatization before Mayor Lyda Krewson scuttled the process in December. He is also helping fund a petition drive by the St. Louis NAACP and the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council. And if a lease of Lambert is approved by July 2021, a group of consultants including Sinquefield-backed Grow Missouri would be eligible to recoup more than $44 million in fees, which has been criticized by some aldermen.

Board President Lewis Reed introduced his bill on June 23. The Ways and Means Committee held one day of public comment last Thursday before sending it to the full board for a procedural step Friday. It could go to Krewson’s desk this Thursday.

Many at the board viewed the accelerated process as an effort to reward political donors, including Sinquefield.

“Out of the dozens and dozens of calls and emails I’ve gotten regarding privatization of the airport, not one has supported it, other than a few big donors,” said Alderman Bret Narayan, D-24th Ward. “That’s where the supporters for this bill are. This is about a $44 million profit for one of the richest people in St. Louis. This is legislative malpractice.”

The board did not adopt an amendment from Alderwoman Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, that would have pushed the deadlines beyond both the mayoral election and the period when Sinquefield could be paid back. Spencer is a longtime critic of airport privatization and a candidate for mayor.

2021 budget

Aldermen on Monday took no action on the spending plan for fiscal 2021, meaning they will not pass a budget by the start of the fiscal year on Wednesday. 

With the cancellation of a special board meeting previously scheduled for Tuesday, there is no way for aldermen to strip the remaining $8 million from the north St. Louis jail known as the Workhouse. The board suspended debate on the budget Friday with such an effort pending.

Special meetings called by the board president, like Monday’s, do not need to be on a specific topic. But the general understanding among aldermen was that it would be used to debate the budget. That added to the frustration over action on the airport privatization legislation.

The failure of aldermen to act means a budget approved by Krewson, Reed and Comptroller Darlene Green in their roles as the Board of Estimate and Apportionment becomes law July 1. It was not immediately clear whether it would be a budget they approved in April, or a modified one approved in June.

Reedannounced Monday night on Facebook that he would introduce legislation outlining a process to close the Workhouse, as well as to establish a Neighborhood Crime Reduction Fund and a division to keep people from returning to jail.

“I have always been in favor of criminal justice reform,” Reed wrote. "These bills will be a catalyst to a defined and organized process to responsibly, effectively & safely close the workhouse while allowing for the funding of needed resources that are lacking in our community.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified who would be eligible to recoup consulting fees. The consultants include Grow Missouri, Moelis & Company and McKenna & Associates.

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Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.
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