County May Sell Mitchell Airport

The idea faces significant legal and political hurdles, but little-used federal legislation provides an opening for local governments to experiment with airport privatization

But County Executive Scott Walker wouldn't rule out the idea, said his spokesman, Rod McWilliams. Although Walker has not heard of supervisors' proposed airport study, McWilliams said, "the county executive is happy to look at any proposal that would be in the long-term best interests of the county. He certainly wouldn't dismiss it out of hand."

The idea took the airport's largest tenant by surprise. Carol Skornicka, senior vice president of Midwest Airlines, said she was not familiar with the concept.

One question that the study would need to answer: How to disconnect the airport from the rest of the county's financial structure. Financial concerns led Walker to oppose the failed legislation that would have transferred Mitchell to an airport authority, although he previously had spoken in favor of the business-backed concept.

Other county agencies charge the airport for services ranging from security to engineering. Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. has said that ending his department's role in airport security would require him to either lay off 57 deputies or seek another $6.5 million in property tax revenue for their pay, now covered by federal aid.

Cash flow is also a concern. Airport Director C. Barry Bateman's notes of a Jan. 19 meeting, obtained through open records requests, show fears that if the county couldn't use airport revenue to cover cash flow gaps, it would "accelerate our decline into bankruptcy."

Bateman's notes don't say who that quote came from. In an interview later, he said he didn't remember who said it, but he noted county budget chief Steve Agostini was doing most of the talking.

Agostini said, "I don't think I said 'bankruptcy,' but we were already at a very significant precipice, and that would push us over the edge."

Without the airport fund to cover general-fund shortfalls, the county could be forced into short-term borrowing that could lower its bond rating, he said.

Yet Milwaukee County has not used airport revenue for cash-flow purposes since late 2001, when an $18 million airport surplus helped partially plug a $32 million hole in the general fund, County Controller Scott Manske conceded. A week or two later, after property tax revenue arrived to bolster the general fund, the airport fund was replenished with interest, he said.

In recent years, Manske said, "we really haven't needed it," because the county has rescheduled bill payments and collections. "I don't anticipate (the move would be needed again), but I don't know what the future will bring."


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