Supes give $85,000 toward air service

After months of wavering, the Mono County Board of Supervisors voted Wednesday to fund air service subsidies, joining the Town of Mammoth Lakes and Mammoth Mountain Ski Area.

But the supervisors vote fell short of the $100,000 requested by Mammoth’s tourism chief, John Urdi, and MMSA CEO Rusty Gregory. Urdi and Gregory have been urging the supervisors for years to step up their contribution for the upcoming third year of air service subsidies, which is expected to cost a total of about $1.2 million a year. That amount is split between the three entities, meaning the less the county pays, the more MMSA and the Town of Mammoth Lakes pay.

Instead, the supervisors agreed to $85,000, with the caveat that it was just for the coming year. After that, they will reassess, they said.

The vote came Wednesday morning, on the third day of the supervisors’ budget review process. Supervisors Vikki Bauer and Byng Hunt both pushed for the full $100,000.

Supervisor Tim Hansen and Hap Hazard advocated for $45,000—the same amount the county contributed the first year of subsidies. Hansen did so knowing he would face the ire of his North County constituents if he supported a subsidy and Hazard did so with only slightly less worries about his constituents, who, like those in Hansen’s district, mostly oppose the subsidies.

Then Supervisor Larry Johnston stepped in and offered a compromise—$85,000.

“This is not forever, this is seed money, until the Eastern Sierra Air Alliance gets on its feet,” he said. “Seventy-five percent of every $100,000 in property taxes that come into this county come from Mammoth, so I’m in favor if it.”

Hansen, who has been the least supportive of the subsidy for both fiscal and philosophical reasons said he had to stand firm.

“No, I cannot change this after all I’ve said,” he said, adding that even voting for the $45,000 subsidy went against many of his beliefs regarding government helping private businesses. “This is how I feel. It’s OK if it’s not unanimous.”

Hazard, who voted “reluctantly” for the $85,000, said one thing he wants to assure is that if the money is not needed for the subsidy, it is refunded.

The supervisors also emphasized that the allocation is a one-time thing, subject to change after the fiscal year.

“We need to see this through this year, but I’d like to see the burden move more to the businesses, especially the bigger businesses that will benefit the most, who have the most invested,” Hunt said.
He referred to a move by the newly-formed air alliance group, comprised of MMSA, the Town of Mammoth Lakes and the county, to push for a half a percent surcharge on hotel, retail and restaurant spending, with the money dedicated toward a permanent fund supporting year-round air service.

Mammoth Lakes Tourism Director John Urdi has been peppering the county supervisors with numbers and data and PowerPoints for the past two years, trying to drum up support for a consistent county involvement in the subsidies.

Last week, he came away from yet another meeting defeated.

“I feel like I failed,” he said then, adding that all the numbers show a very large return in terms of dollars, for the amount of money the county puts into air service—about $8.60 for every dollar spent.

On Thursday, he was relieved.

“I am very pleased that the Mono County Board of Supervisors have continued to support the air service subsidy. The economic impact on our communities is something we need to continue to nurture,” he said.