GUEST COMMENTARY: A closer look at airport privatization agreement

2014-04-02T00:00:00Z GUEST COMMENTARY: A closer look at airport privatization agreementBy Ruth Needleman nwitimes.com
April 02, 2014 12:00 am  • 

I had to force myself to read the recently-signed Airport Development Agreement. All it takes is tiny type and legalistic language, and most of us will stop reading.

It was passed by the Gary/Chicago International Airport Authority with only four votes, little discussion and no public review. 

First, there is no accountability, oversight or transparency. To “expedite development," a designated person at the Airport Authority along with the developer get to make all the decisions.

In the agreement, the city and the Redevelopment Commission transfer all their authority to the Airport Board, a body without any elected representative. 

How many jobs will be created by the airport developer? There is no mention of any minimum number of jobs to be created. There will be jobs, but how many, who will get them and what will they pay?

According to the agreement, 20 percent of the work will go to local minority, disabled, women or veteran-owned small businesses and 30 percent to local businesses in Northwest Indiana. The agreement provides a definition: “'Local' means businesses with a significant pre-existing presence in the NW Indiana region, with a focus on Gary, then East Chicago and Hammond, then the surrounding region.” Note: it says businesses and not workers!

These businesses, however, are not required to hire minority, disabled, women or veteran workers.

No jobs are set aside for those who most need them — unemployed workers in poor communities.

How about training? This $100 million agreement calls for $50,000 in job training funds for the first year. That might pay for an ad, or pay off a supporter, but nothing more.

Training goes on before the work gets done, right? Wrong! By the third year, the amount climbs to $150,000 (total for three years = $300,000). That means 0.003 percent of the total is set aside for training. After the third year in this 40-year contract, no funds are set aside for training.

For almost three years, the NWI Federation of Interfaith Organizations/Jobs Coalition has been fighting for a community benefits agreement at the airport that would train, apprentice and hire workers from poor neighborhoods to do 30 percent of the work at a living wage. Even though the mayor and City Council signed this agreement, there is nothing in this Airport Agreement that provides jobs for those most in need. 

What happens if things don’t work out? If the developer pulls out? I could not find a clear statement on who ends up holding the bag! The city, Airport Authority and developer will hold each other “harmless,” meaning no punitive damages. So if they fail to create jobs, if they fail to invest the $100 million promised, if no minority businesses get selected, no damages will be paid.

How would the city sustain the airport or handle its debts? More of your tax dollars at work!

Even though this development agreement requires so little, the developer and the Airport Authority have the power to over-ride any section of the agreement by mutual consent. This is what they call transparency and accountability!

Ruth Needleman is professor emerita at Indiana University Northwest. The opinions are the writer's.

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