Wis. Regional Airport Authority Proposed

Dec. 24--Mitchell International Airport and other publicly owned Wisconsin airports could be taken over by new regional airport authorities, under legislation that two Milwaukee-area lawmakers plan to introduce. Quotable

State Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale) said Friday that he and state Sen. Jeff Plale (D-South Milwaukee) are drafting a bill that could set up airport authorities across the state.

Stone declined to provide key details of the legislation, saying he and Plale would announce specifics at a news conference Thursday at the airport.

Early reactions to the idea were divided, with cautious support from Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and Julia Taylor, executive director of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and skepticism from Supervisor James White, chairman of the County Board's Transportation, Public Works and Transit Committee.

Mitchell is part of Milwaukee County government, as is the much smaller Timmerman Airport on the city's northwest side. Both airports are funded entirely by user fees, federal aid and state aid, without any property tax support.

But spinning off Mitchell to a regional authority has long been a priority of local business leaders, who say Mitchell is a regional economic asset, not just a county service. In 2002, a GMC task force recommended creating a regional airport authority to govern Mitchell, Timmerman and Waukesha County-owned Crites Field.

The GMC plan called for an appointed body without taxing power. Stone declined to comment on whether his bill would provide for elected or appointed leadership or on how airport authorities would be financed.

Stone said the legislation "definitely will have an impact on Mitchell Field" and that Waukesha County and other local governments that run airports would have to decide how it would affect them. White said it would take a majority vote of the Milwaukee County Board to transfer control of the airport, and the state "couldn't just impose it on us."

Statewide, local governments own 99 of the 134 airports available for public use, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Three of Wisconsin's 13 largest airports already appear to be jointly operated by local governments: Central Wisconsin Airport in Mosinee, a joint venture of Marathon and Portage counties; Eau Claire's Chippewa Valley Regional Airport, jointly owned by Eau Claire, Chippewa and Dunn counties; and Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport.

Among other busy Wisconsin airports, eight -- Mitchell, Madison's Dane County Regional Airport, Green Bay's Austin Straubel International Airport, Appleton's Outagamie County Regional Airport, Oshkosh's Wittman Regional Airport, Janesville's Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport, Timmerman and Crites -- are run by counties; and two, La Crosse Municipal Airport and Kenosha Regional Airport, are city agencies.

Creation of a regional airport authority, at least for Mitchell, also is part of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce's "Blueprint for Economic Prosperity." Stone said the airport legislation was among a series of bills he has introduced to enact that blueprint.

"It's obvious that there's a lot of desire in this area to look at economic development and transportation issues on a regional basis," Stone said. "The goal here is to have the most efficient Mitchell Field that can help drive economic development in the region."

Taylor said an independent authority could act faster than county government, without weighing the airport's needs against those of other county programs.

White disagreed, saying, "Interference of the county is generally to a minimum. The board is extremely accommodating of (Airport Director C. Barry) Bateman" on most things. When action is delayed, White said, it's because important questions need to be answered.

Suggesting that the airport should be governed by a board that doesn't take the time to ask questions "is almost like promoting the museum model," White warned. Auditors have faulted the financially beleaguered Milwaukee Public Museum's board for lax oversight in the years since the County Board handed over direct control of the institution.

White questioned how the change would benefit the airport, adding: "There has to be something more than, 'The private sector wants it in a more privatized context." That's not good enough."

Walker voiced support for the idea in his 2002 and 2004 campaigns. The executive was spending time with his family and was not available for comment Friday, but spokesman Rod McWilliams said Walker still backed the concept and looked forward to working with Stone and Plale on the details.

Taylor and White said they had not seen details of the legislation, and McWilliams said Walker had not, either. Stone said he had briefly discussed the idea with Walker and Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas, his former GOP colleagues in the Assembly.