Blindsided! Council meets on holiday in air subsidy crisis

While the rest of Mammoth was enjoying the Fourth of July holiday at parades, arts exhibitions, and music in the park, the Town Council had a very different kind of holiday.

Meeting in a hurry-up special session on the afternoon of the Fourth, the council began deliberations on diverting up to $400,000 from the town’s Measure U revenue to the airport to secure fall flights to and from Los Angeles.

But it’s more than just fall flights, said Mayor Matthew Lehman.

“We received information on Tuesday that if we didn’t subsidize fall air service, Alaska Airlines might discontinue all service.”

He said the timing of the special meeting was predicated on the urgency of doing something fast.

“If we had to live without air service in just the fall, that would not be a killer for us. But if we lose air service from Los Angeles for the entire year, we’d lose a million dollars from that, and that just won’t fly.”
He said Alaska Air had set a deadline of today (Friday) to hear back from the town.

Lehman also insisted that monies from Measure U could be used for such a scheme, using the “mobility” aspect of the Measure U town ordinance.

The council, which called for the special meeting at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, took no action. Rather, it tabled the proposed legislation for yet another special meeting, this one next Wednesday, July 11, at 6 p.m. in the Town Council Chambers in Suite Z of the town offices.

There, Lehman said he expects to hear from people who have different ideas for the allocation of Measure U funds, as well as to explain the council’s actions on Wednesday.

He said the information hit the Town Council from out of nowhere—that Alaska Air’s threat to discontinue air service was made known at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, which also subsidizes flights.

New Councilman Michael Raimondo then called Alaska Air to confirm the details, and the council flew into action.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there right now,” Lehman said. “I’m hearing that the town is bailing out Mammoth Mountain, but that’s just not true.”

Lehman said he also heard from people who were surprised at the swift timing of Wednesday’s special session.

Under law, special meetings of the council must be announced at least 24 hours ahead of any such meeting. This one was called 24 hours, 30 minutes before Wednesday’s 2 p.m. meeting, beating the deadline by a half hour on a Tuesday afternoon when many people were preparing for their holiday activities.

Coincidentally, the announcement of the special meeting also occurred one day after the council declared its intent to enter into municipal bankruptcy to settle its $43 million legal debt to Mammoth Lakes Land Acquisition.

While posted within the town’s website, the announcement of Wednesday’s meeting did not appear on its home page calendar, where meetings normally are displayed.

Lehman and Raimondo, both of whom asked the town staff to come up with a report that might support such a move, initiated the Measure U legislation.

It happened quickly.

“It has come to the attention of the town that there is a significant risk of losing year-round air service provided by Alaska Airlines if funding to subsidize the proposed four-day-a-week air service this fall is not secured,” wrote Town Manager Dave Wilbrecht and Recreation Manager Stuart Brown in their background report to the council.

The proposal would appropriate “unallocated Measure U funds, and encumber future Measure U funds to subsidize air service this fall from Los Angeles to Mammoth by Alaska Airlines.

“It is estimated that an annual amount of $300,000 to $400,000 is required to subsidize fall air service.”
Voters approved Measure U in June 2010. The ordinance states,

“All proceeds of the tax are designated for the following purposes: Planning, construction, operation, maintenance, programming and administration of facilities and projects for Mobility, Recreation, and Arts & Culture.”

Lehman said airport subsidies “absolutely” fit into the mobility category of the ordinance, but he said that stance likely would be challenged in Wednesday’s meeting.

“We (the councilmembers) want to hear all the questions,” he said.

From his own point of view, Lehman said he wants to know if the town is willing to face up to one central question: “Are we willing to gamble losing our air service?”

As of right now, the unallocated Measure U funds are at $84,401. The council on May 16 approved $653,215 toward Measure U applicants, the most high-profile being the Mammoth Track Project, set to break ground on Monday, July 9.

On June 20, the council adopted a resolution appropriating $70,385 of additional Measure U funds to benefit the Mammoth Lakes Events Coalition and the Mammoth Lakes Foundation.

As of yesterday (Thursday), the Measure U fund balance is $84,401. For the fiscal year 2012-13, the Town says it expects to receive $922,853 of Measure U funds.