By Doug Hissom Special to Published Oct 03, 2008 at 5:28 AM

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Milwaukee County is not the only place where there's talk of privatizing the airport.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley announced plans this week to lease out that city's Midway Airport. A private group would take over the airport and pay $2.521 billion for a 99-year lease. Unlike the Milwaukee County plan pushed for study by County Executive Scott Walker, 99 percent of the money would fund infrastructure projects around the city.

Walker has floated the idea of turning over the airport to some other entity, despite county supervisors relishing the revenue it brings into the cash-strapped county government. Walker's proposed budget for next year calls for $500,000 to study the option.

The County Board balked at that plan.

"We believe the $500,000 proposed for an airport lease study can be better spent elsewhere," Milwaukee County Board Chairman Lee Holloway and Supervisors Michael Mayo, Sr., and Christopher Larson, whose district includes Mitchell airport, said in a joint statement.

"The airport uses no property tax dollars in its operation and all revenues generated from passengers and airlines are used to maintain and improve the airport. A private operator, however, would keep profits and could put additional cost burdens on both passengers and airlines, which cannot sustain additional financial obligations in the current environment of a challenging economy and high fuel costs.

"In addition, due to the slowing economy and tight credit markets, the airport may be worth less than what the County Executive is projecting. We are also concerned about a plan that does not provide safeguards for property tax payers in the event that privatization would fail."

Midway Airport serves over 17 million travelers each year while Mitchell processed 7.7 million passengers.

A county study group last year suggested a quasi-public authority run the airport and pay rent to the county. It determined a private sale of the airport was the least desirable option. A study last year by the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute claimed that privatizing the Mitchell airport operations would bring hundreds of millions of dollars to the county.

State Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale) pushed a plan for a regional authority last year as well, but it fizzled due to lack of enthusiasm.

It appears that for now Chicago farther along in dumping its airport to a private entity. The City Council takes up the matter next week and the Federal Aviation Administration would have to give its blessing, too.

Mental Health Complex: Another of Walker's privatization proposals met resistance from the County Board, which rejected by an 11-8 margin the idea of leasing the former St. Michael's Hospital from Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare to use as a new mental health complex. The board favors building a new complex at the current County Grounds site.

The board and Walker dickered over which was the cheaper option, with Walker's team bringing some last-minute numbers to the table showing his plan was substantially cheaper than building anew. Walker's plan would also privatize the workforce at the new complex. He says he will veto the board's action.

Not surprisingly, the debate made for some interesting quotes.

County Supervisor Joe Sanfelippo, elected in the spring, termed the vote as "buying cats in a bag."

"My grandfather was a little old Italian immigrant that peddled fruit with a horse and wagon," he said in a statement. "He would go every morning to buy his produce on commission row. My father tells a story that my grandfather would always open the wooden crates to examine the merchandise before he bought it. The guys at the commission houses would hate this and give my grandfather a hard time. So one day my father asked my grandfather why he continually opened the crates when he knew it would aggravate the people. My grandfather replied, ‘I don't buy cats in a bag. I want to know what I'm getting.'"

With no substantial drawings, plans or preliminary legwork done yet for a new building, Sanfelippo noted that cost overruns could be a problem.

County Supervisor Toni M. Clark, Chairperson of the County Board's Economic & Community Development Committee, gave three reasons for a new complex:

  • "Milwaukee County taxpayers should not be stuck with a building that has attracted no other interested buyers or lessees. ... A new County-owned facility in the County Grounds gives us much more flexibility. A long-term lease at St. Mike's could have backed taxpayers into a corner down the road."
  • "It makes sense to build a new facility in a central location, especially one that is in close proximity to the critical mass of major medical institutions in the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center."
  • "We will have the ability to construct a new facility to meet our needs and develop property that will have lasting value. We do not want to be left with a building that has no buyers."

Wolf Fever: One would think a group calling itself the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation would protect all things wildlife. In light of a federal court ruling that put the grey wolf in Wisconsin back on the endangered species list, the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation has asked for an appeal.

A court ruled last week that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service misinterpreted the Federal Threatened and Endangered Species Act when it de-listed the grey wolf from the protection of the act in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Now, it's protected again.

There are between 539 and 590 wolves in Wisconsin, which naturalists from WWF contend is 100 more than the goal.

"The over-goal populations of wolves in Wisconsin are causing significant depredation to livestock operations and dogs owned by hunters and landowners in Wisconsin wolf range," stated Chuck Matyska, chair of the WWF's Endangered Species Committee. "This is the second time that the Federal Courts have intervened in the delisting of the gray wolf in these states and population levels are causing serious management problems."

Former state Department of Natural Resources chief George Meyer is the WWF executive director.

Doug Hissom Special to
Doug Hissom has covered local and state politics for 20 years. Over the course of that time he was publisher, editor, news editor, managing editor and senior writer at the Shepherd Express weekly paper in Milwaukee. He also covered education and environmental issues extensively. He ran the UWM Post in the mid-1980s, winning a Society of Professional Journalists award as best non-daily college newspaper.

An avid outdoors person he regularly takes extended paddling trips in the wilderness, preferring the hinterlands of northern Canada and Alaska. After a bet with a bunch of sailors, he paddled across Lake Michigan in a canoe.

He lives in Bay View.