Brainerd council to withhold airport funding on 4-2 vote
The Brainerd City Council voted 4-2 Tuesday night to withhold its funding for the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport until it can get answers to its questions.
Council member Bob Olson raised the issue, which included strong comments from several council members.
“What I have to say may rub some of my colleagues the wrong way,” Olson said. “I feel very strongly about what I’m about to say.”
Olson said there was a good old boys network at the airport with the interest more in protecting former airport manager Steve Sievek rather than representing the interests of Brainerd residents. Olson questioned recent airport commission decisions to pay Sievek as a temporary construction manager rather than open the newly created position up for applicants. Other decisions questioned included Sievek’s pay rate and the agreement signed for his voluntary retirement.
Olson said he can’t recall another such agreement during his tenure and Olson said the agreement was done in violation of airport policy with unused sick leave of 960 hours based on existing annual wages at the time of retirement and Sievek’s wages were based on his position as airport manager before he was terminated and given the construction manager’s position at a lower pay rate. In a written report to the city, Olson said Sievek’s sick leave severance amounted to $38,299 or a rate of nearly $40 per hour while his construction manager’s job was at a rate of nearly $30 an hour. Olson said Sievek will also be paid for about six weeks vacation and the airport policy states the severance pay is based on being in good standing and a voluntarily retirement while Sievek’s position was terminated on Dec. 6. The airport commission may be representing others, but Olson said: “When they make decisions like this they are not representing me.” He characterized the decisions as reckless spending. Olson said he didn’t think the elected officials or the public had all the answers regarding that agreement and he questioned if there was a threatened lawsuit by Sievek during the process.
Council member Kevin Goedker, the council’s liaison to the airport commission, was absent from Tuesday’s meeting. Olson noted Goedker made the motion to approve the voluntary retirement along with the selection of Kuepers Inc. to be involved in the airport remodeling project while Doug Kuepers served on the airport commission. Olson said the city needed airport commissioners who were not just acting as rubber stamps. Council President Mary Koep said it didn’t seem right to have all these things said at the meeting with Goedker absent. Olson reported information was delivered to Goedker regarding the airport agenda item before Tuesday’s meeting.
Council member Bonnie Cumberland asked if the airport commission utilized its own legal fund in its budget when putting the agreement together. “I share those concerns,” Cumberland said of issues about the airport.
Olson said the city council had to get the airport commission’s attention and the best way to do that was by withholding its funding until the city gets answers. Olson wanted to withhold the entire $155,500 in funding. Funds are transferred from the city’s general fund to the airport monthly.
The council agreed to ask the airport commission’s chairman, Andy Larson and former chairwoman, Beth Pfingsten to attend the Jan. 17 city council meeting. A separate meeting to talk about the airport’s future governing structure is being planned with the Crow Wing County Board. Council member Kelly Bevans seconded Olson’s motion to withhold the funding. Council member Dale Parks said he didn’t think they should hold the Airport Commission hostage to have them make decisions the city wanted. Council member Lucy Nesheim said she didn’t think this was the proper path to take.
“I still look at it as blackmail,” Nesheim said, of the council’s action.
Koep said she didn’t want to shut down the airport for even a week as taxpayers rely on that airport being there. She questioned if the airport had the funds to operate if money was withheld in January and February. The city reported the airport had an adequate fund balance.
The council voted with Bevans, Cumberland, Olson, Koep in favor of withholding the money until the Jan. 17 meeting with the airport commission representatives. Nesheim and Parks were opposed.
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at 855-5852 or firstname.lastname@example.org.