Airport Commission raps Mathieu | Arkansas Blog

Airport Commission raps Mathieu

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The Little Rock Airport Commission today completed its annual review of airport Director Ron Mathieu. There was no discussion, but the group voted that he'd get no pay raise this year and he'll get no bonus contribution to his retirement or deferred compensation package. A copy of his apology for spending indiscretions will be placed in his permanent record.

Mathieu, among others, sent $40,000 to one of his kid's schools to help build a new football field. He charged $700 in personal dining to the airport. He wined and dined staff and politcos — including Mayor Mark Stodola and chamber of commerce leader Jay Chesshir — at a dizzying pace, including at wine-fueled repasts at expensive Parisian restaurants. He charged his dress shirts to the public. He took foreign and domestic junkets, always in a first-class seat on long flights.

But the Airport Commission has proclaimed Mathieu's work as wonderful except for these little blips. Now it's assessed a bit of a financial nick. (He got an $8,200 bonus last year on top of his $181,000 salary.) Mathieu, of course, deserved no pay raise even if he'd had a pristine record. Nobody is getting a pay raise in government this year. The better question is whether he earned a pay cut. The record suggests he did. He was, in short, treated no differently than any public employee in Arkansas — and most of them did their job without misspending public money for private use.

Mathieu's record may come up yet one more time this year in a public setting. As we've written before, the commissioners love Mathieu because he's increased revenue at a time of declining airport usage. How? By confiscatory parking rates. By capturing the airline boarding fees that are socked to passengers. And by increasing by huge amounts the charges put on people who depend on the airport for business — such as rental car agencies and private airport parking services.

The House this week may consider a bill passed in the Senate to prevent Mathieu from sticking an $80,000-a-year fee on the Security Airport Parking for using airport roads to take customers to and from the terminal. Do you think their shuttle buses cause that much road damage? Of course they don't. And the airport charges nothing to the hotels that make similar use of airport roads. But this is the kind of extortion that has made Mathieu such a commission favorite. The owners of Security think they are being punished for refusing to sell their property to the airport. (Imagine what rental fees would be if the airport had a monopoly on airport parking. It boggles the mind.)

I'm not wholly sympathetic to the Baker family that owns the parking concession. They've long owned the land and presumably their overhead is comparatively low. Every time the airport raises rates (and that's often), they can raise rates, too, and have done so. I also confess the Baker family's Republican political advertising at the airport gateway when they owned the Avis franchise still rankles a bit. It is also a touch hypocritcal for small-government Repubs to turn to an act of the legislature to win advantage for private business. But it does seem true that they are getting screwed, as are the rest of airport users, by price-gouging airport policies. Security at least gives you your first 59 minutes of parking free, which effectively makes them the free cell phone parking lot that the airport refuses to provide the public.

NOTE: Commissioner Tom Schueck pressed again for more study of establishment of a cell phone lot, which Mathieu has resisted because it would cut gouging of customers.

The city is employing a raft of lobbyists to beat the parking fee bill in the House, sponsored in the Senate by Republican Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson. See a memo from parking deck owner Drew Baker on the issue on the jump.

LETTER TO LEGISLATOR FROM DREW BAKER

My sister suggested I write you an email regarding my issue with the airport and SB207. As Darlene may have already told you our dad started this business and it's now starting its 24th year in business with 15 employees and a small group health plan. I became a silent minority partner in 1999, a year after our dad died, and in 2007 I bought the business out right. I'm not certain of the whole history of the fees being assessed for our courtesy shuttle accessing the airport roads but I know for many years the business operated without fees and at some point in the mid 90's a per space charge was assessed. All I really know is that when I took over the business just 4 years ago the fee as a percentage of my revenue was less than 2%.

In the spring of 2007 the same year I was in the process of purchasing the business when a very public discussion was had in an airport commission meeting and documented in the newspaper about how the staff would like permission from the commission to approach Expressway parking, then Security parking, about selling to the airport. I was contacted by a mutual friend to many of the commissioners. I told them at the time I was not
interested in a sale, subsequently I was approached again in 2008. In June of 2009 I actually sat down with Ron Mathieu for the first time at his office regarding an issue with construction signage that had been placed across from our lot, and at the time he again broached the idea of me selling and again I said, at this point in time I was enjoying my work and not interested in selling my business, the very next thing he told me was " You know Drew I only have to slash my rates for a few months and I could put you out of business".

Without responding to his comment I just told him that when the right time for me to sell came I would let him know. Then a little over a month later, on August 10th Ron called me to inform me he was pursuing an increase in the fees, and after about 6 months of my opposition they restructured my fees to be paid as a percentage of my revenue starting at 6.5% graduating each year by ½% until 8% of my gross receipts, I think this was clearly punitive for not selling my business.

First I submit to you that the airport while in competition with me can never serve as an honest arms length broker in determining fees. Secondly, it's clear that now after establishing a fee once and then amending it again
demonstrates they can continue to justify to themselves more increases, where will it end and how much is enough? Little Rock National has about 1,100,000 annual enplanements, I want to point out that Tulsa Intl. airport
with 300,000 more annual enplanements has an offsite parking facility and there is
no fee, Charleston S.C. with almost the same boardings as LIT has no fee.

Thirdly, my service as far as the airport is concerned is only a courtesy shuttle I only drop off and pick up my customers, I am no different from every hotel in town and there are NO fees assessed them. In fact there are 2 hotels here in town that advertise parking for a stay in their hotel and Ron Mathieu has acknowledged he is aware of them and there is still no fee. Fourthly, the airport revenue base last year was $24 million, 8% of my total gross
last year is only .003 of that amount, it's not even 1% of last year's surplus of $8 million. I know you know as a small business owner what 8% of your gross feels like.

During the last year I have come to understand the definition of a tax and a fee, a tax is an arbitrary number and a fee must have a direct relationship to a benefit, well in the last 4 years I have had a decline in business of about
20% in addition our access has been disadvantaged by the airport staff by not allowing our buses the same drop off and pick up point as their own parking bus and the taxis. Therefore I believe since my benefit is not being improved
then if it's going to be arbitrary, then I see no reason they should be due more than the tax I pay the city especially if other courtesy shuttles like ours are not expected to pay any fees.

I the interest of fairness I beg of you as a legislator, as the governing body that gives the airports there authority please place some safe guards to protect a small business that has no political clout, and in the interest of
every House and Senate members constituency, help preserve a competitive fair market for parking at the airport. After 24 years of business, the airport's financial status has not once been jeopardized by our presence and to date the citizens of Arkansas have had a fair market for parking.

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