Airport privatization would be foolish

    Historically, Milwaukee County has had less than stellar results from privatization. The privatization of the Milwaukee Public Museum was supposed to offer major cost savings, but instead cost taxpayers millions. Mismanagement and lack of accountability led to the near loss of this cherished institution.

    And who came in at the last minute to bail them out? Milwaukee County did.

    With record numbers of passengers and nonstop flights, Mitchell Airport is one of the most successful public assets in the entire region and frequently receives praise from the travel industry. Passenger fees have remained the same since the mid 1990s.  Parking fees have increased only once in the last five years.

    Travelers easily notice the quarter of a billion dollars the County has invested in the airport, which is a huge driver for economic development and minority employment. We go out of our way to be good neighbors to those who live near the airport, helping address their noise and environmental concerns. Would a private operator be as responsive?

    Privatizing the airport could lead to major cost increases. Potential private operators are already salivating at the chance to operate our airport like a mall and satisfy investors by extracting the maximum amount of revenue from passengers. Although Midway Airport in Chicago, the only major U.S. airport that has applied for privatization, plans to freeze airline fees for the first six years of a private lease, Midway’s chief financial officer told the Chicago Sun Times the lease will not cap parking rates and the operator will raise them "to the point where the market will either accept them or not."

    Considering that approximately 90 percent of the airport workforce is already privatized, is it worth sacrificing accountability by contracting out the remaining county employees?

    It’s not a good trade-off.

    The Milwaukee County Board has not yet been presented with a formal proposal. If one of Mitchell’s major airlines goes out of business, would taxpayers be left holding the bag or would the private firm negotiate lower payments to the county? What if privatization fails? Stewart International Airport in New York was leased to a British operator in 2000, but the experiment failed and the airport was transferred back to the public.

    Due to the volatility of the airline industry, leasing the airport would not provide a stable source of mass transit funding. Why would the county executive sacrifice the airport to make a quick buck? Based on the best case scenario from the county executive, an airport lease would only give Milwaukee County a maximum of $15 million per year for transit, which isn’t even enough to maintain the status quo.

    The county board recently approved an advisory referendum to remove the transit burden from property tax payers and shift the cost to a small increase in the sales tax. For Milwaukee County residents, the sales tax would reduce property taxes. Don’t be fooled when the county executive claims property taxes won’t go down. The property tax levy would still be subject to strict levy limits set by the state.

    The county executive has opposed every transit funding solution adopted by the county board. Even business leaders who have historically supported the county executive are now pushing the sales tax to preserve our mass transit. Bus riders need help right now.  They should not be treated like airline passengers who have to wait years before cashing in frequent flyer awards. Even though Chicago’s Midway Airport could be transferred to a private operator this year, the plan was first proposed nearly five years ago. We can’t afford to wait that long. I will oppose any attempts to get this proposal off the ground.

     

    Milwaukee County Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic represents the 4th District, including Milwaukee’s Bay View and near south side neighborhoods.

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