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Everyone Loves the City of St. Louis — for the Good Stuff

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I can't remember having more mixed feelings on a topic than this.

On the one hand, it is fine news that St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann has stepped forth passionately — joining forces with St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and Denny Coleman, interim director of the Port Authority — in an attempt to do a really good thing for the City of St. Louis. That would be their attempt to put the brakes on the city's indefensible, and potentially corrupt, rush to cash out its number-one asset, St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

As stated repeatedly in this space, the rush to lease the airport to private interests (in effective perpetuity) — clearly at the behest of and through investment by Shadow Mayor Rex Sinquefield — is about as bad it gets. The city would lose control of its greatest asset in exchange for a gigantic, quick-fix up-front payment that would give new meaning to the concept of mortgaging one's future.

Where the money would go is anyone's guess. But if you'd like to try your hand at wild speculation, one might start with Sinquefield's well-known dreams of nuking the city's earnings tax, a revenue source that offends him but has been validated by city voters by overwhelming margins.

Worse yet is the political atrocity of the process, which was unveiled by former Mayor Francis Slay (after working secretly with Sinquefield for a year or more) in the final days of a sixteen-year administration. After publicly misrepresenting this treachery as some grand, futuristic innovation in airport management, he and numerous cronies apparently stand to receive extraordinary consulting fees if it goes forward.

Wow.

Most telling is the fierce opposition by Mayor Lyda Krewson and assorted officials to accountability and transparency. The tireless effort of 20th Ward Alderwoman Cara Spencer to require some manner of public approval of the privatization concept was again stalled last week. Since neither Spencer, nor citywide officials like Comptroller Darlene Green and Treasurer Tishaura Jones are succeeding in stopping the project, maybe the only hope is for the rest of the community — led by Ehlmann and Page — to slow things down.

Personally, I think Ehlmann and Page should be enlisting a study by the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council, which includes all of the warring parties, rather than freelancing one of their own. Process matters here if St. Louis is going to stop Sinquefield and company from ramming this through.

But even having said all that — and despising the rush to airport privatization — another point must be noted: The outside "benefactors" of the city really have some chutzpah here. (For those not up on their Yiddish, "chutzpah" is best embodied by the boy who kills both of his parents and pleads for mercy because he's an orphan.)

Ehlmann is a likable man (albeit a conservative Republican). He's accessible, competent as a county executive and well intended. But in the process of doing the right thing with respect to resisting the rush to privatization, Ehlmann has in the process put on display the unbridled hypocrisy of his own St. Charles County with regard to our region.

In an October 17 op-ed piece in the St. Louis Business Journal headlined "City Cries Poor, But May Alone Reap Benefits of Airport Privatization," Ehlmann waxes eloquent about Lambert as "our most valuable regional asset" and even introduces the heretofore unspoken phrase "metropolitan family" into our local lexicon.

Now, that's special. On two occasions, in 1996, St. Charles County voters rejected a modest half-cent sales tax that would have extended MetroLink all the way to St. Peters, dramatically improving the county's access to the very same Lambert International Airport. The ostensible claim: These fine citizens just don't like paying taxes. The notion that the 90-percent-white county lacked appetite for more "family gatherings" with its more diverse neighbors in St. Louis city and county was presumably just coincidence and not about race.

Whatever. Nearly a quarter of a century later, as if St. Charles County's self-defeating rejection of MetroLink never had happened, Ehlmann wants a seat at the management table of this very airport. And he seems unwilling to recognize the trifling detail that the city owns 100 percent of said airport. Period. It's theirs, not "ours."

Ehlmann's rationale, as expressed in the Business Journal, was astonishing, describing the airport's rightful owner as "a city that contains 12 percent of the region's citizens, whose earnings, sales, property and state income tax support the city, its institutions, its convention center and the most generous historic tax credit program in the country."

For crying out loud, St. Charles has its own convention center and it's going to whine about supporting the one in the city? And if having historic tax credits (God forbid) means the city owes it to other counties not to control its own airport, well then all of Missouri's counties should run the city airport.

Here's the bottom line: Fewer than half of the people defined as St. Louisans by the United States Census Bureau live in the city and county combined. That number was in the 80 percent range half a century ago. This reality must be addressed, be it in participation in the airport, the Saint Louis Zoo-Museum District, crime, education or other matters that actually involve people spending tax dollars for the collective good of the region.

I have long argued that the people of St. Charles are as much a part of St. Louis as people who live in the city and county. But not for free.

When the Blues won the Stanley Cup, everyone partying in the rollicking celebration was "from St. Louis," with no territorial distinctions. Ditto for the Cardinals' glories and the Arch, and the Zoo and Grand Center and all the wonderful cultural institutions within the city and county.

When it's something positive, we're all one big very happy family. But if we're talking about any of the other challenges facing pretty much every major American city, then St. Charles County acts like the city is a distant third-world country. That's not right.

This isn't a new argument from Ehlmann. Not long after St. Charles County voters rejected MetroLink, he was a state senator arguing that Missouri should essentially seize management of the airport. He even stooped to saying, "St. Louis would not have a world-class facility so long as only residents of the City of St. Louis are allowed to work there."

He drew fire for that one from a city official as an "insult" and "an affront to the citizens of the City of St. Louis and the excellent employees we have out at the airport." That official? Why, it was the aldermanic president, a fellow named Francis Slay.

Lots of history and irony here. Slay was right and Ehlmann wrong that time. Now it's reversed. I'm on Ehlmann's side if whatever he does slows airport privatization. But as for this "metropolitan family" thing? I'll believe that when St. Charles County residents do the right thing and get on board with MetroLink expansion. With money.

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at rhartmann@sbcglobal.net or catch him on St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann and Jay Kanzler from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).

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