by Max Brantley
In honor of “True Grit,” call this bold talk from a one-eyed fat man who’s not much in a Christmas spirit after reading about the Little Rock Airport Commission essentially telling airport Director Ron Mathieu yesterday that all is forgiven. He lied to them about a $40,000 ad expense for his kid's school. He charged personal expenses to the public. He lived like a duke.
All of that is forgiven because he — like most other major airport directors — know the kind of jargon you have to sling to get readily available federal grant money pouring to build Taj Mahal airports whether they are needed or not. The commissioners — who enjoy choice parking places and fine official junkets on account of their stature — bask in Mathieu’s monument program. They really seem to think if you build an airport, a city will come, and not the other way around.
An ever-grander airport will be just a Potemkin village built on dreams, if past expansions are any measure. Little Rock can and should hope the city will need a much bigger airport someday, but expanding the passenger portion of the airport has little to do with the city's organic growth.
Airport passenger boardings, the main measure of commercial traffic, dropped a whopping 25 percent at Little Rock National between 2000 and 2009, from 1.285 million to 948,000. 2010 isn’t looking much better. The airport boarded 91,647 in November this year, 19 fewer than the 91,966 boarded 10 years ago in November 2000.
Oh, but not to worry, as several airport commissioners have noted. Airport revenues have skyrocketed. That’s because they are sticking it to airport consumers and sticking it to them hard.
Some examples: When Mathieu came on staff in 2006, you could park next to the terminal on the west side for $8. That charge is now $13, a 63 percent increase. You could actually park free there for under 30 minutes. No more. The long-term lot south of the terminal cost $6 a day. That’s now $10, a 67 percent increase. There was no airport charge on rental cars. It’s now $3.50 a day, which can mean an increase in a rental charge of 20 percent a day on some economy deals. The gouging is evident in every aspect of the operation, from bagels to beer. If you asked, commissioners would undoubtedly answer that Little Rock gouges no more than other airports and less than some.
They made him sound so wonderful yesterday, I look for commissioners to give Mathieu another boost in his $180,000 pay in February. And surely there’ll be more, too, for the rest of his staff, such as the surly media officer who presided over the $40,000 giveaway to Little Rock Christian and who, at
$91,000 $96,000 a year, makes more than the director of the Arkansas State Police.
Gouging in other cities is no defense of a $40,000 payout for a football field at the airport director’s private school of choice. It is no defense of charging private meals to the public. It is no defense of a widespread free lunch policy for many favored airport workers.
I don’t blame Mathieu for the airport’s failure to grow. That’s a function of the economy and area growth. But we are kidding ourselves with dreams of grandiose expansion work if we think catering and parking fees will be sufficient to pay the bills if airport traffic doesn’t grow.
City leaders are susceptible to such fantasies. The glories of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce’s economic development effort is cited every time the city board votes a taxpayer subsidy to the chamber. I asked for proof of the job claims Mayor Mark Stodola has cited. There is no audited list. I got a mishmash of news releases that fell well short of adding up to the thousands of jobs he has claimed. I also found they included claimed job growth at industries that had actually cut jobs — Dassault Falcon and LM Windfiber, to name two. The mayor and the chamber take credit for immense job growth at Verizon, when we know hundreds of jobs were cut (Verizon won’t say how many) when it bought out Alltel, even counting the low-pay call center Verizon opened in place of lost higher tech jobs. The chamber and the mayor also claim economic development expenditures were critical in jobs attributed to major companies already here with trained job forces — think the Alltel wireless spinoff and Southwest Power Pool. Was the city subsidy of the chamber really the reason successful operations with proven workforces decided not to make an expensive move and build a new workforce from scratch?
It is, again, the Little Rock Club at work. Club members, who enjoy the appointments and perks that come with their economic and political power, always behold their work and that of their subordinates and proclaim it good. What’s a little dishonesty, featherbedding and taxpayer-financed gratuities among friends?
Just remember when the club talks about their miraculous achievements to look at some better indicators — population, city tax revenues, school enrollment and condition of essential infrastructure — before you applaud.