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Lambert Airport

A view of St. Louis Lambert International Airport on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS • A committee tasked with picking a team of consultants to advise the city on whether to privatize St. Louis Lambert International Airport has met several times but has yet to choose advisers to lead the process.

There were 11 submissions for consulting services, Deputy Mayor for Development Linda Martinez told the Post-Dispatch. Only three covered all services sought in the city’s request for proposals, she said, and the others only covered part of the services. The identity of the winning bidder won’t be revealed until a contract is agreed upon.

The committee is made up of representatives from the offices of Mayor Lyda Krewson, Comptroller Darlene Green, Aldermanic President Lewis Reed and City Counselor Julian Bush.

No vote was taken when the committee met Wednesday. Instead, much of the session was devoted to providing information to several city aldermen, amid growing concern from members of the board that the process, which was greenlighted by the Federal Aviation Administration in April, hasn’t been transparent.

“I think something as serious as privatizing our airport engenders a more thorough communication process, not just with aldermen, but with the community at large,” said Alderman Christine Ingrassia, who represents the 6th Ward and attended the meeting. “I’m a little embarrassed when a constituent reaches out to me about this and I don’t know any more than they do.”

Reed made a similar call for transparency in a statement on Thursday.

“In order to best evaluate this option, input from our citizens, elected officials, business community and other key stakeholders must be included,” he said in a statement. “Above all, we have to ensure transparency and public trust is maintained throughout.”

Reed said his support would depend on a number of factors, including a sizable amount of money from a lease agreement — enough to pay off the airport’s debt, make a dramatic impact on blight and vacancy in the city, provide job opportunities and fund public safety initiatives.

The influx of cash to a financially struggling city is the main selling point offered by supporters of privatization, who also say a private operator could run the airport more efficiently. The city gets roughly $6 million in revenue from the airport annually, but lease money could be used for needs beyond the airport, something not allowed under the current operating system.

Critics have questioned the need for privatizing Lambert, citing its recent growth, including a 10 percent spike in passengers in 2016, and a strong credit rating.

“My concern is, if (a private entity) can make such a wonderful profit off the airport, perhaps we can too,” said 13th Ward Alderman Beth Murphy, who also attended the meeting.

The effort to explore the benefits and risks of privatization has been a slow one. The city began seeking bids for consultants in September.

Martinez stressed that the exploration of privatizing Lambert is still in its very early stages, and reviewing proposals for consulting services simply took longer than expected. There will be many checkpoints going forward to engage with both the Board of Aldermen and the public, she said.

“We’re going to talk to all constituencies,” Martinez said. “This is just the beginning of the process.”

Others have taken issue with a provision in the city’s request for proposals that states advisers hired by the city would only be compensated if a deal goes through, arguing that the arrangement incentivizes privatization.

“If a study on privatization is to take place, it needs to weigh all options, not have a predetermined conclusion. Any lobbyist for the city needs to be the lobbyist only for the city,” said 15th Ward Alderman Megan Green in a statement.

Martinez pushed back on that assertion.

“Everyone who is on our team has to have their No. 1 client, and only client, be the city,” she said. Working on a contingency basis in this kind of scenario is typical, she contends, comparing it to bond transactions the city comptroller engages in all the time.

“It’s probably not in most people’s experience, but this is extraordinarily normal,” Martinez said.

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Former Mayor Francis Slay initiated the privatization effort just weeks before he left office. An application to participate in the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Privatization program was spearheaded and funded by St. Louis financier Rex Sinquefield’s nonprofit, Grow Missouri Inc., which will be reimbursed an unknown amount if the city makes a privatization deal.

That fact still leaves some city officials uneasy.

“We wouldn’t even be having a conversation about this if not for Rex Sinquefield,” Ingrassia said.

Others felt more assured after the airport committee meeting this week.

“We felt we were kind of in the dark. I feel better about the process being more open now,” Murphy said. “You’d have to hold your judgment until you saw the actual lease or whatever. I wouldn’t say unequivocally no. But on the surface, public-private partnerships don’t appeal to me. When I look at ones that have happened in other cities, they haven’t gone very well.”

19th Ward Alderman Marlene Davis, who chairs the board’s transportation committee, said she was reluctant to talk to reporters about privatization at this point and that she was keeping an open mind.

She has invited the airport director to give a presentation to her committee on Thursday. Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge will give a presentation on how the airport is run, and aldermen will have a chance to ask her questions, Davis said.

In the coming months, Martinez hopes to be able to clear up misinformation that’s been floating around, particularly in regard to unionized workers at the airport. Under FAA requirements, any lease agreement reached cannot affect existing union contracts, she said.

But a potential lease agreement is a long way off. Once selected, the team of consultants for the city will draft a request for proposals from companies or firms that want to lease the airport, which the city would still own. The chosen consulting group also will provide legal and financial advice, analyze incoming proposals and recommend who the city should move forward with, if officials choose to move forward.

St. Louis leaders insist they’ll do so only if it’s in the best interest of the city.

“It would have to provide opportunities for our citizens that they do not have otherwise,” Reed said. “If it’s not a real game changer, it’s not worth doing.”

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