Saint Charles Debates $80K Funding for Publicity of Developer’s Airport Expansion
With revenues down by about $1 million, the Saint Charles County Council met to debate the merits of granting $80,000 to market an airport expansion project that doesn’t fall within the county. The project is a proposed expansion of the Lambert–Saint Louis International Airport that would create a China hub in the hopes of increased international trade.
Developer Paul McKee, who put forward and completed the Winghaven development in Saint Charles County, has been a strong backer of the China hub expansion. McKee has said publicly that his latest project, a 1,500-acre redevelopment of the city of Saint Louis’ north side, hinges on Chinese business for many of the project’s promised 22,000 new jobs.
But county council members were skeptical when they held a work session on Monday to review the proposed county’s 2010 budget. Council member Cheryl Hibbeler brought up the issue first.
During 2009, she said, the county council allocated $37,500 for marketing of the China hub expansion. In 2010, the amount increased to $80,000, a significant amount of money for the county, with what she saw as no guarantee of a return.
“It basically boils down to finding enough to pay this one guy … to attract enough China business to Lambert,” she said.
The $80,000 is part of a $931,000 bill for annual marketing costs that the county, along with others, such as Saint Louis County, is considering paying. According to County Executive Steve Ehlmann, the marketing costs include not just salary for one man, but work to be done by a number of individuals working for a single marketing firm.
Oversight of how that money will be spent was another concern for Hibbeler.
“Who’s going to be deciding whether this $931,000 is really working?” she asked.
And, even then, she wondered aloud, what were the chances of the China hub coming to fruition, and bringing new jobs and business to the county? At one point, Hibbeler characterized the project as a “crapshoot.”
County Council Chairman Joe Brazil also questioned why the county should spend money on marketing the project. Brazil, who is critical of tax incentives and subsidies, asked whether the county could expect competitive bid reports and cost documentation if it granted the $80,000.
“I don’t know that you’re required to bid this,” Ehlmann responded.
In 2008, stemming from concerns about bids being awarded as political favors, the county auditor conducted a review of a few tax development districts (TDD) in Saint Charles County, including Winghaven. Of the five TDDs surveyed, all failed to adhere to a complete competitive bidding process. The Winghaven TDD was cited in the review because two of the project’s codevelopers were connected to contractors hired to do work for the development.
Ehlmann was the most vocal supporter of the budgeted marketing expense. The project, he said, has the support of the governor, the chamber of commerce, and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), and would bring spillover business to the county.
“If we don’t get this China trade, that’s where it will go, it will go to Chicago,” he said.
Other counties and municipalities weren’t asked to be a part of the project, Ehlmann said, but Saint Charles was invited to participate.
“I don’t think this is going to rise or fall [based on] whether we put our money in,” Ehlmann said. “The question is, do we want a seat at the table?”
After more debate about whether the county could spend the $80,000 elsewhere, council member Nancy Matheny suggested that the group reconsider the expenditure at a later date.
“As tight as we are, with no raises or anything else, it’s hard to allocate to something we don’t understand,” she said.
The council made no decision during its work session, and the $80,000 remained in the proposed 2010 budget. But, said Brazil after the work session, the council will likely vote on whether to strike the expenditure during the next few weeks.