A clause in the state’s agreement with the Rockford airport regarding funding for the MRO project makes one thing clear: no one in control actually knew what was going on when it came time to answer the question, “How are we paying for this thing?”
By John Guevara
with Shane Nicholson
The most recent example of why people do not trust government muddied what should instead have been a celebration of good work being done at the Rockford airport.
An event Monday marked the completion of the first phase of work at the airport as part of a FAA grant obtained by Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Cheri Bustos. The next phase will be the expansion of a cargo ramp to meet a potential increase in demand.
Atlas Air, one of the primary customers with whom the airport hopes to expand cargo traffic, has also been utilizing AAR’s MRO facility at the airport, which opened earlier this year. Airport Director Mike Dunn says, “They have two (Atlas) planes in the hangar right now and 150 people working over there…they estimate it could be as many as one-thousand in two years.”
In his remarks, Durbin mentioned the MRO, saying investment has been made by the federal government for the project. “(We have to) keep our fingers crossed that the state will keep its promise through its budget mess to provide its funding as well,” he said.
Bustos, when asked what the status of the $10 million in federal grant funds for the MRO was, turned to a staff member and asked, “What is the status?” Without a ready answer, her staff told The Rock River Times it would have legislative aides in Washington reach out with the information.
Within hours, a congressional staffer sent an email response saying: “The State is still on the hook for about $15.3 million in funding for the MRO, so if you’re trying to figure out whether it’s going to get funded, you might ask the Governor’s office.”
The staffer did email a link to a $2.5 million EDA grant awarded to the airport in 2015, purportedly for the MRO. As for the rest of the funds: “I don’t think there is any pending federal grant… it appears to all be on the state.” And even then, it was overlooked that the EDA grant was for road construction and not the MRO facility.
This has been an all too common refrain sung by the Rockford Register Star editorial board; its columnist Chuck Sweeny; Durbin; and Bustos for the past 18 months: “The state should keep its promise.” That’s been the chorus ever since former Director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) James Schultz said in Sept. 2015, “The state’s procedures require us to make sure we have all the documents in place, and there’s a federal grant requirement we need first in order to release our grant dollars. Until we have that, we can’t release our funds. I’m going to follow the law, and no one is going to push me to violate the law.”
What was Schultz talking about? Page 6 of the grant agreement between the airport and DCEO says, “Federal grant funds will provide $10,000,000.” Page 12 of the same agreement in paragraph B(2) reads, “Grantee shall provide documentation satisfactory to the Department that the federal and local funds are available to the Project.”
The “promise” by the state depends entirely on documentation of approved federal grant funds for the MRO. And we know that no federal grant is pending. So why the sing-song about the state being the problem?
One Airport Authority board member explained why they felt state money for the MRO isn’t going to happen: “Springfield has money to give. They won’t because they don’t want Rauner cutting any ribbons any time soon.” But the Airport Authority signed on to around $17 million in financing from local banks meant to cover the gap until state and federal funds were released. Those banks are now being paid back with local tax dollars.
It was disappointing to hear the misrepresentation about MRO funding Monday. The event was about good work being done at the airport; there was no need to talk about the so-called “investment” in the MRO. Nor was there any requirement to allude to federal funding, an allusion which fell apart after a less than five minutes on the phone with congressional staff.
To be clear, either federal grants must be approved for the MRO before the state money can be released under the current agreement, or a completely new grant can be submitted. Either way, it needs to be done. The project is a good project. Rockford deserves one-thousand good jobs.
But the failures and pitfalls in the funding gap have been a known problem for a while now. This paper reported on it in February. There are the loans to pay back and an $8 million bond issued by the county to now account for. Those are going to be paid one way or another, and right now, the other way is by increased taxes.
Critics at the time the agreement was reached pointed out the failings in documentation. That everyone was relying on someone else to trigger some clause to release some amount of funds. It was a domino effect, but everyone was playing with their own set of dominoes.
So enough of the lies and misrepresentations. Knock it off. The only reasons to claim the state made a promise is not knowing what was in the grant agreement, or not caring what was in it. Now we know. There is no doubt. The state can’t do anything without documentation of federal money for the MRO or a new grant agreement and the feds don’t know where their money is. Two parties failed, and the airport thought it had hedged its bets with the loans. But that bet is still far from paying off.
Anyone who tells us “the state needs to keep its promise” can no longer claim ignorance. The line must be drawn here and not a millimeter further. If not, taxpayers in Winnebago County face a higher bill as the airport pays down loans taken out to cover a funding gap. According to our officials, that funding gap should only have been temporary as local, state and federal resources were aligned. Instead, local taxpayers are paying up to $80,000 per month in interest on those loans indefinitely.
It is up to us to demand better than lies and political ploys. We should not be faced with higher taxes and fees because Springfield and Washington won’t tell the truth and do the right thing. It’s time to stop with the nonsense and do the job right. R.