People are happy it’s over, if not about the terms
Last Friday, the Town of Mammoth Lakes announced the terms and details of its $29.5 million settlement with Mammoth Lakes Land Acquisition (MLLA). Since then, locals who had read it online exhibited a wide variety of thoughts on the terms details. One detail that stuck out to local Bob Solheim: when the Town chose to release it:
“I was surprised at how many folks didn’t even know the PR was out,” he said. “The timing the Town used skipped an entire news cycle, and people read the newspapers here, they just do. The Town effectively seemed to black out a lot of people from knowing about it and possibly attending Thursday night’s special meeting.”
Solheim said he is happy to have closure, and thinks the Town is trying to put the best face on a horrible situation, but called the $2 million annually over 23 years payment scenario “quite a millstone” around the Town’s neck.
“Industry has been reducing its budgets, and I’m not downplaying the amount the Town needs to cut … it’s a lot, but it should be able to take a 10% reduction even after all the previous cuts, and still remain effective,” he said. “Reorganization, outsourcing and having the unions bid to compete … all those are the right things to do.” What isn’t the right thing to do, he countered, is suggest the public tax itself to help pay the judgment. “I have no support for taxes, and I hope the Town has the good sense not to use cuts to the Police Department and so on as leverage to help sell the public on a tax increase,” Solheim said.
Neal Levin, a Mammoth resident with extensive accounting experience, said he’s glad a settlement was reached, but cautioned, “We’ll have to wait and see how the town funds these payments…who loses their job, what services are cut, etc. before we can say the deal was a good one.” Levin said he’d like to see whether the Town has any legal recourse against those originally responsible for the debacle. “If not, at least those responsible should no longer hold office in this town or be ‘consulted’ in the future on ANY town business.”
Don McPherson pointed out that the settlement figure is almost identical to a proposed offer of $29 million that had been rejected earlier by the Town. “Now we’re right back where we started a year or so ago, and we spent hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to get here,” he said. McPherson is also critical of one of the settlement’s restructuring pitches, which involves, “Creating opportunities for the public to be more involved in government by establishing a far-reaching volunteer program, with opportunities in areas such as customer service, visitor services and neighborhood patrols.”
“I’m not going to volunteer to jump on a snowplow,” he said, railing against levels of service that could be gutted to unworkable extremes. “As a taxpayer, why should I?”
A “taxing” thought …
The Town has suggested the public may wish to enact some form of tax to help pay down the settlement. This has met with stiff resistance.
Locals Diane Eagle and Mary Canada both said they are “opposed to any new taxes,” no matter what form they might take. “I’ll fight that,” Eagle firmly stated. “They got themselves into this, let them get themselves out of it. Don’t look at us [taxpayers].” Ann Gimpel’s comment also was even more direct in terms of taxes: “No taxation without representation. Sound familiar?”
Greg Newbry, however, said he was in favor of a specific type of taxation to help remedy the situation. “I’m for a south county sales tax increase in addition to perhaps a recreation tax; we need this to go away,” he wrote in. “For Mammoth to succeed, we need to get this problem behind us.”
Second homeowner and multiple property owner Peter Dach, who urged Council last week to take its chances in front of a bankruptcy judge, was apparently queasy upon learning of the settlement. “$48.5 million? That is a good deal?,” he asked rhetorically. “[I want to know] what is the real story … pensions, salaries, pictures of someone with farm animals? I’m nauseous.”
A few locals summarily blasted the judgment. One business owner called the settlement “horrible” and said, “[Council] sold us out.” Another went so far as to call it “completely (colorful expletive) up.” Suggestions for how to obtain the $2 million annually ranged from turning over the Police Department to the Mono County Sheriff’s Department to giving Ballas and MLLA deeds to the municipal park and ride lot and the Bell Shaped Parcel, and “telling them to hit the road.”
Linda Wright reserved most of her comments for now, but didn’t seem to be too keen on the final figure. “Wow … $29.5 million! And I thought my daughter’s wedding was expensive!”
Russ Norton, who was involved in the airport in the 1990s as a member of the Airport Advisory Committee, said there were a lot of “ignorant, arrogant mistakes” made by the Town staff and Council at the time. Today, he’s pragmatic about the settlement. “Nothing’s going to change anything; it’s over, let’s go on and drive forward,” he said. “What we have is what there is … we’ll survive. The Town’s made cuts and I haven’t realized any hardships. There might be some changes, but it will all be okay.”
Contractor Tim Flynn said he had some reservations initially, but seems to share Norton’s cautious optimism. “As for the settlement, what is 98 cents on the dollar? That’s what we ended up with, basically,” he posited. “We just came up $2 million short in our budget and now we’re adding another $2 million. How do we come up with that? It’s simple math, but it doesn’t add up.” The thing that has irritated him since the beginning of the MLLA negotiations: “The veil of secrecy. We had this confidentiality agreement with MLLA, and there was this sense that it was the unions getting in and trying to save entitlements, at the expense of fiscal responsibility, and small business and the taxpayers.”
Flynn went on to say that he’s also glad it’s finally over. “I’m preferring to stay positive about it. “We’re moving forward. I’m confident we’ll find the money and get it done. In five years, we won’t be talking about it anymore.”
He also thinks the public needs to take into consideration some of the many “variables” in play during the negotiations. “I don’t necessarily fault Council,” he added. “They had to deal with … lawyers, a bankruptcy judge … they were under a lot of pressure over details we can’t imagine. It wasn’t easy for them. We had to appoint a Council member by default, nobody wanted to run, that’s how bad it was. We gotta cut them some slack.”
And Flynn’s also of the opinion that Chapter 9 wasn’t the way to go. “I’m not a fan of bankruptcy. If I ran the Town as a business, I wouldn’t want a Chapter 9 on my record,” he said. “It reflects on people personally, as individuals, and I don’t think we want to risk that as a town at that level.”
Mike Coco is of a like mind. “I’m happy it’s over and done. I might not like [the settlement] entirely, but sometimes we have to do things in life we don’t like in order to move forward,” Coco opined. “As my mom used to say, we have to learn from our mistakes.” He is, however, not a fan of the community enacting any new taxes to pay it down. “No. Not interested,” he stated. “Let the Town figure out how to do that for themselves. The public and local businesses have enough on our plate to deal with.”
Mammoth resident Pam Basso is another local happy the settlement’s over. She’s also not too sullen on the terms. “I think we made a good deal. It was $44 million plus, so it could have been worse,” she opined. “The whole town has been dragged through this for so many years. Time to look ahead and get on with our lives.”
Basso also expressed relief at the Town’s decision not to pursue Chapter 9. “I worry about what it would do to investors who have been hesitant to come here, in part because of what a bankruptcy might have meant to property values, which don’t need any more problems.” She agreed with Flynn that perception could have a significant impact on future business and tourism. That said, she also suggested it might be time for other changes. “Now we just need to start over with a whole new Town Council,” Basso added.
Clint Hyde posed a pointed question to the Bridgeport community that harkens back to the award of $30 million, made by a jury in a Bridgeport courtroom, by a predominately north county jury. “How do the folks in Bridgeport who awarded the judgment feel about us now? I’d really like to know,” he queried. “Are they happy about the settlement? Did we have this coming to us? Or do they feel sad? ‘Gee, we’re sorry, we didn’t mean for it to go this far?’”
Hyde also protested MLLA’s ability under state law to buy the rights to the judgment, which he suggested was akin to gambling in Vegas. It might be legal, he acknowledged, but added he personally finds it “immoral.”