Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (MMSA) Chief Marketing Officer Howard Pickett ended up having his presentation on air service at Mammoth-Yosemite Airport grounded for Tuesday’s Mono County Board of Supervisors meeting. And he might want to count his blessings, as he missed the rough headwinds he may have encountered during parts of the alternate discussion that took place in his absence.
Pickett was to have appeared to review the performance of the 2010 summer air service program and outline the plan for the 2011 summer/fall air service program. He was also to formally submit a request that Mono County increase its financial participation from $45,000 in 2010 to approximately $215,000 for the summer/fall 2011 air service program. The Board’s 2010 expenditure covered a six-week during October and November, helping subsidize Horizon Air operations during the “shoulder season” period leading up to the traditionally busy Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
The agenda item was tabled because of possible conflicts of interest flagged by County staff, primarily stemming from a spouse with some history of seasonal employment with MMSA. Staff is looking at options that would avoid any contract between the County and MMSA, the deal Pickett might otherwise have proposed.
This in turn gave rise to the question of how much and whether the County should even be involved in air service, and if so, how much of a role should it play?
Firmly behind air service, Supervisor Vikki Bauer posited that, “An increase in Mammoth TOT is an increase in property values. I see a direct correlation between TOT and property value in Mammoth Lakes, which is the engine that drives the economy in Mono County.” She went on to say “the conversation is broader than what we’re getting in TOT … if we lose ground in air service, I’m sure our property values will be [negatively] affected.”
On the other side of the spectrum, was Board Chair Hap Hazard, who pointed to recent reports of MMSA’s revenues trending up almost 20% this year, and the Town’s $10 million in reserves (Hot Creek litigation not withstanding). “With [as yet unknown] state impacts, we’re being asked to contribute almost $250,000 in general fund discretionary money, and invest it in air service without any public input or bringing the citizenry to the table,” Hazard said. Outlying areas are in need of basic emergency and life support services, he said, finding it hard to justify how County could then turn around and put almost a quarter-million dollars in an airport. “It’s like if my neighbor bought a new truck he couldn’t afford and asked me to help him with the payments because its sitting in his driveway makes my property look good. Meanwhile, I’m struggling to keep my Volkswagen on the road.”
Supervisor Larry Johnston pointed out that the Town has other streams of revenue to support subsidies, such as Measure A, and recalled that a few years ago the County basically “gave the Town an airport … I think we sold the property for $1.” He also differed with Bauer on the property value correlation argument, which he labeled “nebulous,” adding he thinks property values are more tied to what’s happening nationally and the state as a whole. Johnston was also equally wary about spending on something “glamorous” such as air service, when a “non-glamorous” necessity such as Solid Waste is losing $1 million annually, and may soon be in need of a $500,000 cash infusion.
“Cities are incorporated to provide amenities (i.e. air service), whereas counties are there as safety nets,” Hazard summarized, deeming County air service subsidies as a “luxury” rather than a necessity. In any case, don’t look for the Supervisors to tackle any kind of air service expenditure until the Board’s mid-year budget review, which will likely push any participation in this year’s air service out of range in terms of Horizon’s planning deadlines.
Last Wednesday, the Mammoth Lakes Town Council authorized the Town Manager to negotiate terms of participation in summer air service subsidy for 2011 with Mammoth Mountain and Mono County, with the understanding that the Town would need to cover a minimum of one-third of the cost and that payment would be due in January 2012. The Town and MMSA will have to wait and see whether the County contributes to the subsidy, and if so, at what level.