Columns » Max Brantley

LR Club at work

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The Little Rock Airport Commission signaled last week that Airport Director Ron Mathieu's job is safe. It adopted some window-dressing financial rules in response to reports in the Times of his egregious misspending, but otherwise sang his praises for cadging freely available federal dollars for airport expansion.

Mathieu, you may remember, seemingly lied to a commissioner's direct question about an ad expenditure and has approved spending for himself and staff worthy of banana republic royalty. No matter. The commissioners really seem to think if you build a bigger airport, a city will come, and not the other way around. They should know better.

Airport passenger boardings 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.

Yes, as commissioners brag, airport revenues have skyrocketed. That's because they are sticking it to airport consumers and sticking it to them hard.

When Mathieu came on staff in 2006, you could park next to the terminal on the west side for $8 (free for less than 30 minutes). That charge is now $13, a 63 percent increase. 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. The gouging is evident in every aspect of the operation, from bagels to beer.

The economy and area growth drive airport traffic, not Mathieu's management. But we are kidding ourselves if we think catering and parking fees alone will pay the tab for a Taj Mahal aerodrome.

Commissioners are so happy with the money flow, they'll probably give Mathieu a raise of his $180,000 pay in February, not to mention more for his cosseted staff. Surely there's to be a COLA for the unfriendly $96,000-a-year public relations officer who took the fall for Mathieu's shipping of $40,000 in public money to his son's private Christian academy. She already makes more than the director of the Arkansas State Police.

The airport field of dreams is typical city leadership fantasy. The city's $200,000 taxpayer handout to the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce is justified by its supposed stellar job creation record. But when I asked Mayor Mark Stodola for proof of his very specific job claims, I got only a mishmash of news releases that fell well short of his number. The paperwork included touts of businesses that had actually cut jobs recently — Dassault Falcon and LM Windfiber — and a citation of Verizon, which slashed hundreds of jobs here after it bought Alltel. The chamber and the mayor also took credit for decisions by major companies already here with veteran work forces — think the Alltel wireless spinoff and Southwest Power Pool — not to make extremely expensive moves elsewhere.

It's the Little Rock Good Suit Club at work. Club members, who enjoy airport commission appointments and other perks that come with clout, always behold their work and proclaim it good. What's a little dishonesty, featherbedding and taxpayer-financed gratuities among members of the club? Accountability? That's only for union school teachers.

Just remember when the club starts bragging on themselves to look at other indicators — static population, declining city tax revenues, declining air traffic, eroding school enrollment and decaying essential infrastructure — before you stand and applaud.

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