Ask Donald Cohen about the process to consider privatization of St. Louis Lambert International Airport, and he tosses out a few loaded words.
Crazy. Insane. Horrible.
The Los Angeles-based executive director of In The Public Interest, a nonprofit think tank that studies the privatization of public assets, has been examining the secretive process by which the city of St. Louis has been considering selling off its biggest asset to the highest bidder.
On Wednesday, a selection committee is scheduled to consider bids for a company that would help advise the city on that process.
Don’t do it, Cohen says.
“If this contract gets executed, it really puts the finger on the scale,” Cohen says. “It gets harder and harder to say no because there is momentum.”
If you are reading this and didn’t realize that the city might sell off its airport, don’t be surprised.
There have been no meetings at the Board of Aldermen to discuss the idea. No public forums. The airport director didn’t even know about the proposal until previous Mayor Francis Slay filed an application with the Federal Aviation Administration. The committee charged with selecting a firm to advise the city on the potential bidding process has mostly met behind closed doors. Short of one off-session legislative hearing, there has been no opportunity for the public to either weigh in or be educated on the idea.
And the entire process is being funded by a private party: Missouri’s most prolific political donor, Rex Sinquefield.
None of this is normal, Cohen says. His organization studies privatization and public-private partnership efforts all over the country. While he’s generally opposed to privatization, this effort, he says, is uniquely bad.
Cohen came to St. Louis to study the airport privatization last week. He looked at documents and met with city aldermen and other public officials. He met with union officials who represent the various employee groups at the airport. Cohen is himself a former AFL-CIO official.
What he found is a process shrouded in secrecy.
“Somewhat shocking to me is that many of the aldermen I met with had no idea what was going on,” Cohen said. “They are completely in the dark.”
But that’s not the main reason Cohen thinks St. Louis should slow down the privatization train.
It’s that he sees very little value in selling off a public asset that seems to be doing well.
Last spring, two credit ratings services — Moody’s and S&P, upgraded the airport’s credit outlook. That information is among the details in a memo Cohen has written advising St. Louis officials to reconsider moving forward with privatization.
“There is no clear fiscal or policy rationale for the privatization of the airport,” Cohen writes. “Privatizing the airport under these conditions would actually weaken the city’s financial future, constrain the economic development vision and plans for the area surrounding the airport and the region and limit the ability to pursue transportation alternatives. It would also increase passenger costs and potentially reduce quality services at the airport.”
Among the things Cohen found out when he was in St. Louis is that the privatization effort appears “cooked.”
First raised as an idea when Jeff Rainford was Slay’s chief of staff, Rainford is now a lobbyist who represents one of the potential bidders in the privatization process. He’s also on one of Sinquefield’s numerous nonprofit boards. Another lobbyist, Jeff Aboussie, recently secured the contract to lobby for the city under new Mayor Lyda Krewson, and among Aboussie’s clients is another of Sinquefield’s organizations, Great Saint Louis.
Even a former colleague of mine, former Post-Dispatch reporter Nicholas J.C. Pistor, is getting in on the privatization game, representing another potential bidder as a lobbyist.
All of this, Cohen notes, before any public officials have spent any time evaluating whether privatization is a good idea. On Wednesday, the city is poised to approve a contract that only pays out if the privatization deal goes through, which puts the incentive on getting a deal done, not doing what’s best for St. Louis.
“It’s very clear to me that there is absolutely no reason to do this,” Cohen says. “It’s a very bad deal. It’s insanity.”