Ever since Mammoth Lakes welcomed its first Horizon Airlines flight and re-instituted winter and now summer commercial air service, the two main partners shouldering the costs have been the Town of Mammoth Lakes (TOML) and Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (MMSA). One notably absent party has been Mono County, which has turned down opportunities to deal itself in for various reasons.
A new discussion Tuesday during the Mono Board of Supervisor’s meeting in Mammoth Lakes saw no immediate change in the County’s position, but supervisors seemed to be edging closer, even if in baby steps, toward some kind of financial involvement.
The current arrangement is that MMSA will guarantee all winter service, and TOML will help guarantee limited summer service. A six-week window from October until around Thanksgiving, however, remains dark. Horizon, pleased with overall numbers so far, has told MMSA and the Town that it’s interested in providing service, if the Town and Ski Area can come up with the dough to cover the seats. Karen Johnston, Deputy Town Manager, briefed the Board on a proposed 3-way plan under which the County would kick in $45,000 as its share of the subsidy.
Johnston said if no tickets are sold, the County could be on the hook for the underage, but more realistic load factor projections point to about 45 percent. She said winter averages this year ran about 53 percent, somewhat lower overall than last year. That, however, has to account for more flights to Los Angeles and a disappointing start to Reno service, which came in at just 35 percent.
“It’s a gamble to be sure,” Johnston said. “We can’t say it’s going to be 45 percent, but that’s MMSA’s expectation. Last year’s contract had risk associated with it as well, but MMSA ended up not having to cover a single dollar of risk, it was so successful.”
Supervisor Tom Farnetti, while not entirely against any involvement, was hesitant. “The reason for air service is to help fill rooms and drive transient occupancy tax,” he pointed out. “That time of year is typically slow. It would serve the general community, but I wonder if it’s a good use of money right now.”
The County has been shoring up its budgetary beachheads in anticipation of lean times for the next couple of years. Property taxes are likely to come in lower, and state funding levels look to be challenged at best, disastrous at worst. The Board tapped into its reserve to help balance the current budget, and its contingency fund is down to $150,000.
County Finance Director Brian Muir said he’s not necessarily against County involvement, but urged caution. “One thing to consider is that we will have a need for money next budget cycle,” he advised.
At first Chair Byng Hunt seemed reluctant as well. “I’d like to see us involved, maybe next September-October,” he said, adding that a 45% load factor was, in his estimation, “wishful thinking,”
Hunt was much more receptive to a more year-round approach. “I’d be interested in being a minor player all year,” he said, opining that scenario would “spread the burden of risk, as opposed to taking a potential hit on six weeks that are typically slow.” Hunt also suggested a cap on the County’s involvement, whatever that ends up being, so costs could be controlled up front. Johnston left that door open. “Maybe $45,000 could be the maximum, maybe less,” she said. “We won’t know until a contract is developed, but it could be worded to limit the County’s role.”
Supervisor Hap Hazard was more conservative. “I think there are more options out there,” he said. “The problem is that [at six weeks] the percentage of seats needing to be sold is too high.” He expressed reservations about subsidizing, saying even Tahoe casinos have dropped air service that didn’t pencil out.
Hazard was also concerned that “fishermen with ice chests are not flying here,” and thought there may be other ways to achieve more air service without the County aboard.
Not all Board members were as standoffish. Supervisor Vikki Bauer said she’s found that fishing, along with access to Yosemite, among other amenities, helps make the County’s fall shoulder season busier than spring. “Fly fishers will fly here … they get on planes to Jackson Hole all the time,” Bauer stated. “Once you have [year-round air service], you get consistency for the population. Tourism is our economic base … some things you don’t want to slow down on.”
Supervisor Bob Peters took the middle ground, acknowledging the high economic risk to the County, but wanting to see more before making up his mind. “I think it might be more appealing to be in for the whole year,” he said. Peters echoed Hunt’s idea for a cap on risk, and suggested some type of marketing plan.
Meanwhile, timing is everything, and the meter’s running in terms of securing planes and putting a schedule together with the airline. County Administrative Officer Dave Wilbrecht told the Board that a decision can’t wait until the formal budget review this summer.
Supervisors did, however, come to consensus on keeping things moving forward, asking Johnston to bring back new options and ideas as they become available. Johnston said the hope is that MMSA and the Town will have something ready for the Board to consider in another two weeks or so.