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The air service issues

July 20, 2012

Air service subsidies to major airlines may or may not be a reasonable and rational approach to air service. It remains, in my mind, an open book for discussion.

Air service subsidies can bring convenience and economic value to us in the short term, but I worry about the sustainability of the effort in the long term. Major airlines can “pull the plug” on us at most any time based on their business models, and things like bad weather, poor external economies, drought situations, airline operational problems, etc—things that we have very little control over—could turn our short term investments into wasted efforts.

As a small resort town, we need to remain fiscally prudent and flexible, and this subsidy endeavor can place us at troublesome risk. I suppose it is the conservative voice in me that questions whether public tax dollars should be used for these subsidies, when private financial support might be able to do the job.
I recognize the indirect economic benefits to the community as an argument to use public sector tax support, but I am also extremely aware of the financial straits that our local government agencies are facing over the near and long term.

It is because of this that I would ask the players that stand to gain the most from air service subsidies to pony up and supply the funding needed for those subsidies, such as the Chambers (business community) and the lodging folks. Asking the Town and the county to throw tax money into the mix is jeopardizing funding that may be needed for basic public services and obligations, and maintenance of sound financial reserves for hard times.

I want to make it abundantly clear that I recognize and support air service to Mammoth Yosemite Airport as a valuable tool for making our region more accessible and convenient for visitors and locals alike. It
is simply one more way to get here. The economic value to local businesses and residents has been researched through recent studies and surveys, and we are presently reviewing the results. While the purchase of the airport from the county back in the early 90s has seemingly led to nothing but problems and frustrations, I have always supported the general idea of public airport access to Mono County.

I was a member of the Town Council that approved the airport development agreement with Terry Ballas in 1997, when I thought the economic potential that the airport development could bring to our struggling rural tourist economy was important.

While I always believed that the Bishop airport would be a better choice for a regional airport for a number of reasons, I supported Mammoth Yosemite’s development as an effort to make us a better and more competitive recreational resort.

Successive town councils and a few ambitious, local business interests undermined the potential viability of that development agreement, and is another whole story that has unfortunately led to the potential bankruptcy of our little urban paradise. But the value of air service to our town and region still remains very important, and I will continue to work to sustain the effort as long as it is done in a reasonable and rational way.

Over the course of the next few weeks, several meetings will take place to consider the complicated issue of air service subsidies.

The Eastern Sierra Air Alliance meets this week to digest creative ideas on the situation, and later this month, the county will reconvene the Tourism Commission’s air service subsidy subcommittee to develop ideas to present to the full Board of Supervisors during our upcoming budget hearings in August.

My personal views, which I intend to discuss at these meetings, is that local businesses have to pony up funding to some degree, and that if county tax dollars are used for an airline subsidy, that the county get something for the public money expended (beyond the perceived regional economic benefits)— such as a series of airline seats available to local businesses and residents at reduced costs.

Also, when negotiating with the airlines, we will need more than just the Mountain at the table; the County, Town and business folks need to supply their input, which, hopefully, will be generated through the Eastern Sierra Air Alliance. We can thank Rusty Gregory for “carrying most of the load” recently, and especially over the past winter seasons. But, it cannot be forgotten that Mr. Gregory was an instrumental player in the airport development agreement fiasco that has played out over the last decade and has led to our town bankruptcy, and that his current “financial crisis” was probably due in good part to poor management decisions as well as unforeseen weather problems and the general recession.

Closing June Mountain next winter will probably do more damage to our region than temporarily losing or reducing airline service.

I would also submit that finger pointing and insulting county supervisors at public meetings is not the way to gain support for important business issues. There is a certain civility and respect that needs to be maintained in the course of public dialogue. It was truly a disappointing show of good character by both Rusty Gregory and Tom Cage at public meetings last week, but goes to show the stress that is currently being endured by our business community.

Good citizens of District 5, and the county at large, please let us know your honest feelings and insights regarding airline service and airline service subsidies. I stand ready to represent what will hopefully benefit us all in the end.

Byng Hunt
Mono County Supervisor, District 5

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