$119.5M later, Southern Illinois taxpayers still trying to get airport off ground

$119.5M later, Southern Illinois taxpayers still trying to get airport off ground

An underused airport near Belleville, Illinois, has required local taxpayers to chip in $119.5 million since 2002 to keep it operating. Even with pandemic money, 2020 was even worse.

St. Clair County taxpayers had to add almost $8.2 million from other county resources to keep MidAmerica St. Louis Airport open during the pandemic year, according to auditors. That brings the grand total since 2002 to $119.5 million in fund transfers needed to fill the airport’s deficits.

The subsidy was up from the $7 million needed in 2019 and nearly $6.3 million needed in 2018.

The 2020 subsidy would have been even bigger, but auditors noted $553,000 in pandemic funds eased the drain. “Declines in passenger service and certain other revenue producing operations were offset by special airport grant funding related to the pandemic.”

One improvement at the airport was the number of available destinations from the lone passenger carrier. A year ago only seven destinations were available, but the airline currently lists 13 destinations from the airport on the outskirts of Belleville, Illinois.

St. Clair County homeowners should be concerned that scarce resources are flowing to a project unable to turn a profit. They should also ask how bailing out the airport is affecting their property taxes and home values, especially the value of a rural home where people rarely see a sheriff’s deputy on patrol because that money is keeping an airport staffed.

Since the Great Recession, St. Clair County home values fell by 23% after adjusting for inflation, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Also from 2007-2017, Illinois Department of Revenue data shows property tax bills in St. Clair County grew 5% after adjusting for inflation.

St. Clair County property taxes are up 5% while home values are down 23% since 2007

Shortly after the airport opened in 1997, it was the subject of a segment on NBC News’ “The Fleecing of America.” NBC returned in 2010 and again in 2015 to find the airport in sad shape.

In the 24 years since it opened, the airport has suffered a string of failed passenger carriers and unsuccessful attempts to build its cargo business, earning monikers such as the “Gateway to Nowhere” and “Glass Palace on the Prairie.”

County leaders have said increases in passenger traffic will improve the airport’s finances. Traffic did increase slightly in 2019, with 153,753 passengers getting on or off a plane, but passenger traffic dropped nearly 30% in 2020 to 108,765.

That meant the $8.18 million county taxpayer subsidy was akin to handing each passenger $75 in cash. That same figure was nearly $46 to each passenger in 2019 and just over $41 in 2018 when the cash used to balance the airport’s books is divided by the number of passengers.

The airport originally cost $300 million. In 2015, St. Clair County leaders decided to refinance the remaining $40 million in construction debt and stretch out repayment to 2045, a move that increased taxpayers’ debt burden to $88 million. And, as auditors stated, “interest continues to be a major expense of the Airport.”

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