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Mono County Supervisors continue to resist air service subsidy

March 12, 2011

Despite another round of pleas from Mammoth Mountain and the Town of Mammoth Lakes Tuesday for air flight subsidies, county supervisors once again said, “Not so fast.”

For the second time in about as many months, Town and Mountain officials came to the county for help, asking for between $215,000 and $289,000 a year to help bridge a gap in subsidizing year around air service (winter air service subsidies are already covered by the Mountain.)

The Town and Mountain would pay the same amount, respectively, making the total subsidy, estimated Tuesday at between $650,000 and $900,000, shared equally by the three entities.

But county supervisors, facing what they call the tightest and most uncertain financial climate in decades, were simply not ready to commit at this time, even as they stated that they support year-round air service. (In fact, they already are committed to a $45,000-a-year subsidy, as agreed to last year.)

But even as they said no right now, the supervisors did ask the county’s tourism and economic development departments to do in-depth analysis of the pros and cons of supporting air service. This cost/ benefit analysis would then give them the information they need to decide how much to spend, relative to all their other financial obligations, they said.

Yes, but...

“Some kind of participation in this from the county is a good thing,” said Supervisor Byng Hunt, who had invited Mammoth Mountain Marketing Director Howard Pickett and Visit Mammoth Director John Urdi to Bridgeport Tuesday to detail why they want the county involved.

“But, I’m not sure of the equity issue. I do believe we need to fund (one of) the economic engines driving our economy, even more in a recession, but I‘m not sure how far.”

(Note: The tourism commission said the county should support the service but left the amount of support up to the supervisors.)
Hunt’s thoughts, in general, were more or less echoed by all the supervisors.

“I’m all for this and you are doing a good job, but I think this really helps Mammoth Lakes (not the rest of the county) and I think it would be irresponsible for me to support this ... I don’t think we’re in the financial shape to do so,” said North County Supervisor Tim Hansen.

“I’d like to see what our $45,000 is getting,” said Supervisor Larry Johnston.

Airline performance – flights dropped or flights turned around before landing – also were a worry of the supervisors, who noted they are getting reports of such problems.

Others noted that the state Legislature had officially reached an impasse with Governor Jerry Brown this week, making the future of the county’s many state-mandated and state -funded programs even more precarious – and leaving the supervisors even more wary of committing to a subsidy at this time.

Now what?

To summarize, the county doesn’t appear much more inclined to get down to the specifics of subsidy numbers than they were back in early winter, when the Mountain and Town first asked for the county to share the subsidy burden equally with them when Bauer was the only supervisor who wholeheartedly supported the request then. She was absent Tuesday.

Then, as now, the supervisors said the state’s precarious financial situation leaves them facing too many unknowns to commit.

Moreover, the supervisors said they still need more direct proof about how much year-round air service actually benefits the county communities outside Mammoth.

Still, even Urdi and Pickett’s claims that the county would receive $5.7 million just this summer in return for subsidizing summer flights is not enough for the county.

All is not lost

That said, all was not lost Tuesday, in regards to the county participating more fully in summer subsidies.

For the first time, the county ordered its staff to begin a detailed look at the option, with strong collaboration between the county tourism commission and the economic development department.

A small subcommittee, including Town, Mountain and county representatives is forming as well.

And, with an upcoming June special election that could determine the amount of money the state gives or takes away from the county, it could be that in a few months, the county will be clearer about what it can and cannot do to subsidize the flights, finally giving Mammoth Mountain and the Town an answer.

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