Little Rock National Airport expenditures on travel, meals and miscellaneous items that totaled $272,000 last year were not beyond the norm in the business, Airport Executive Director Ron Mathieu said Monday.
The Arkansas Times determined the amount after looking at credit card charges for the past 12 months at the airport after discovering the airport had written a check for $40,000 to Mathieu's son's school, the private Little Rock Christian Academy, for an advertisement painted on the football field.
Charged to the credit cards were travel to conferences in Hawaii, Brussels and various U.S. destinations for Mathieu, his assistant director Bryan Malinowski, other airport personnel and members of the Airport Commission. In 2009, the airport sent Mathieu and Mayor Mark Stodola to meet with Dassault Falcon in Paris, where a single meal for four, for example, cost $842.68; the airport's full tab for the Paris trip was $15,121.31. The airport paid for Stodola's airfare and for meals for Stodola, Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce President Jay Chessir and others.
Mathieu said the trip was made to encourage Dassault Falcon, which has a manufacturing plant at the airport, to "keep jobs in Little Rock." (Stodola has said the same thing.) The airport didn't pick up every meal, he said; the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce picked up the meal tabs every other night. The Chamber won't say if that money came from its $200,000 taxpayer subsidy. Nor will it reveal the specific amounts spent.
Commission Chairman Bob East said he believed the trip to Paris was made at the request of Gov. Mike Beebe, who also traveled to Paris as part of a three-city European business tour, and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. Still, he said, the amount of money being spent by airport administration "concerns me, and I want to know what the money is being spent on." He noted that Commissioner Tom Schueck is looking into airport expenditures and policies to determine what is appropriate and will report his findings to the full commission in December. "Public money is a pretty serious responsibility," East said.
The Times compared Little Rock's airport travel with Albany's, which like Little Rock is in a capital city and which had a similar number of travelers last year. That airport's director travels only five times a year, and never abroad.
But Mathieu said the number of travelers was not a good basis for comparison. "You have to look at where the city, the state, wants to go. ... It depends on what that commission is trying to accomplish." He said Little Rock and Arkansas officials are working together to bring business to Little Rock, and the airport plays a role in that. He praised local leadership, saying they "do a better job than other states" at collaborating on ways to grow the city.
As an example of how travel benefits the city, Mathieu cited a December 2009 trip he made to Washington with Malinowski. They went there, he said, to work to get a non-stop flight from Little Rock to D.C., something the Arkansas congressional delegates especially would like to see happen. It didn't happen, because of complexities involved in a lawsuit, but it was a necessary trip, he said.
East said the commission trusted Mathieu because of the work he has done since becoming director in June 2008. He credited Mathieu with saving the airport "millions of dollars" by increasing revenues from concession rentals, parking fees, gate fees and the like and by winning federal grants for energy conservation and other airport improvements. Revenues are such that coupled with federal grants and stimulus dollars, the airport has in hand the $54 million it will spend on an expansion.
Despite the activity, travel at the airport has not been rising. People boarding planes at Little Rock National hit a high in 2007, at 1.27 million. Year to date enplanements as of September 2010 were 848,895. Mathieu became interim director in December 2007 and director the following year.
The Visa card issued to Mathieu, Malinowski and others is being used for a variety of things; Malinowski's charges seem to be largely for meals. An example: Malinowski's receipts attached to the January 2010 statement for Dec. 5, 2009, to Jan. 6, 2010, includes numerous charges for local meals at Chili's, Sonny Williams Steak Room, and Senor Tequila, as well as meals in Chicago and Washington on business. Washington charges also included three nights at a hotel and taxi fare. Other charges on the card were for a carwash and Spanish-language learning CDs from Rosetta Stone.
The card was also used in 2010 by staff in Hawaii, where Mathieu was attending the annual Airport Issues conference of the American Association of Airport Executives, and by other employees in Florida, Texas, Nevada, Missouri, Minnesota, Tennessee and Georgia.