Air service is safe ... for now; Council borrows against Measure U funds

The Mammoth Town Council on Wednesday preserved Alaska/Horizon airline service by voting to make a loan against $300,000-$400,000 in Measure U tax funds.

The council’s action came in a special meeting, just hours after a Measure U Advisory Committee voted unanimously to not touch the Measure U tax funds for airline subsidies.

The council finessed that issue by not taking funds from Measure U directly. Rather, it agreed to make a “short-term, one-time only” loan, to be paid back in a matter of months.

Mayor Pro Tem Rick Wood said the move should be a perceived as a “non-precedent-setting action.”

“We should consider this for what it is,” Wood said, “that it’s an extraordinary action in extraordinary times under critical or crisis circumstances.”

At the heart of the crisis was Alaska/Horizon Airlines’ ultimatum last week that it would require a financial commitment for four-days-a-week fall air service, or pull out altogether.

The timing of the ultimatum caught just about everyone by surprise. The council already had cancelled its July 4 regular meeting for the holiday, only to find itself meeting in special session on the very same day, just barely meeting its requirement to give the public 24 hours notice.

With a budget already sliced to the bone, the council thus began to consider using funds from Measure U—passed by Mammoth voters in June 2010 for the purposes of providing money for “planning, construction, operation, maintenance, programming and administration of facilities and projects for Mobility, Recreation, and Arts & Culture.”

The conditions of the funds are that they cannot by used to “supplant” existing facilities or projects, nor could they be used outside the boundaries of mobility, recreation and arts and culture.

In the 2010 campaign to pass Measure U, proponents argued that the “mobility” piece would be used for such things as trolley service, the construction of sidewalks, new in-town transit, and so on.

The measure is elastic, however, and the council zeroed in on the “mobility” piece as being a viable reason to use the funds for the preservation of Alaska/Horizon air flights.

That stance drew harsh criticism from Measure U proponents, such as the Mammoth Lakes Foundation’s Evan Russell, who said any such move would be a violation of public trust.

“We asked for a tax that would support local initiatives like parks, trails, local transit, arts and cultural programs and better pedestrian use,” he asserted in a widely disseminated email before the meeting.

“Air service,” Russell wrote, “was never mentioned as an option in any public meeting we attended.”
Former Planning Commissioner Sharon Clark also was highly critical of the move in remarks from the podium on Wednesday, finishing with an under-the-breath comment “pathetic” as she re-took her seat in the audience.

The council also drew skeptical reactions for Measure U Advisory Committee members Sandy Hogan, Bill Sauser, and Joyce Turner.

That committee, meeting earlier in the afternoon on Wednesday, said “mobility” did not apply in this case, and that it actually “supplanted” existing service. It voted to recommend that Measure U funds should not be used to prop up Alaska/Horizon.

“There have got to be other ways to do this,” Turner said. “I would challenge the council to challenge the staff to come up with the money elsewhere.”

By structuring the money as a loan and not an outright grab, however, the council said it felt safe, particularly because there are no Measure U projects on the table at this time, nor would it be robbing Peter to pay Paul, so to speak.

Echoing each of the other members of the council, Wood said he was not troubled in the decision.

“Personally,” he said, “I’ve thought about this for the last 10 days, and I’m not troubled by the definition of mobility nor the intent of the voters.

“I’m not troubled by the supplanting argument. Those, it seems to me, are details.

“The broader question is, we have a problem now. It is real, it isn’t a bluff, and where are we going to find the money? There are no other sources or resources that I’m aware of.

“My thought, after hearing some of the comments, is that if mobility is limited to building sidewalks for people to walk on, why would we do that if the people who would walk on the sidewalks can’t get here?

“I’m not troubled by the timing. I like the idea of a definitive and definite time for repayment of a loan; I like the idea that it’s a real loan, not a phony loan as I’ve seen in the past.

“I consider this a priority and it’s important to not leave out the fact that we consider this an emergency. If we consider this as a crisis, if we are committed to resolving the funding issue over the next months and not face this for a year, we need to make sure that this is perceived as that and acknowledge it as a non-precedent-setting action.”

Councilman John Eastman wondered aloud as to whether the council’s decision might influence the bankruptcy court in Sacramento, which took up Mammoth’s case on Thursday.

Town attorney Andrew Ross parried Eastman’s concern.

“They (the court) are operating under the same limits that we are,” he said. “Just as we can’t tap Measure R or Measure U for any purpose that we want, neither can the bankruptcy court order to us to pay over Measure R or Measure U funds for any purposes outside the bounds of what the voters approved.

“It’s a special tax, and the voters have established limitations on the use of those funds.”

Many people in the audience at Wednesday’s packed meeting sought to influence the council one way or the other on the merits of air service and its relationship to keeping tourism as the main priority for the town.
That included comments from Mammoth Mountain CEO Rusty Gregory, Chamber of Commerce President Brent Truax, Mono County Supervisor Byng Hunt, and others.

Gregory, quoting Mammoth businessman Shields Richardson, illustrated the council’s peculiar position.
“Water is for drinking,” he said, “except for when your house is on fire.”