Mono County not keen on subsidizing air service

Even as Mammoth’s town council moved to approve an agreement to subsidize some air service flights this week, county supervisors had three words to say:

“Not so fast.”

At a Tuesday discussion centered around Mammoth Mountain’s request that the county help subsidize air service, splitting it three ways with the town government and the Mountain, it was clear the supervisors aren’t ready to go there, not yet and perhaps, not at all.

It should be noted that Howard Pickett, who was scheduled to give a complete presentation on the subject, had to postpone his appearance before the supervisors by one week.

“The county is struggling,” said Mono County District 2 supervisor Hap Hazard. “This is $1 million in four years. ... Before we divert that kind of money, I’d like to see the Tri-Valley get their paramedic, I’d like to not have to cut county employees.”

He noted that counties exist to provide “safety nets” for people, not “amenities.” Towns and other municipalities have tools to provide amenities to their residents, but counties operate the bare bones services: snow removal, road maintenance, critical services that all residents have to have.

He also said he believes the question should go to the public.

“If they support it, I will,” he said.

Even Mammoth’s two supervisors whose districts fall wholly within Mammoth boundaries weren’t enthusiastic about the idea.

“I don’t want to see us subsidize this if it’s not viable on its own,” said District 5 supervisor Byng Hunt. He added that he was also wary of the long-term ramifications of being involved in such a subsidy.

“I’d like to see the statistics that show how this benefits the county,” said District 1 supervisor Larry Johnston.

He added that he had concerns about to what extent governments should support private businesses.

‘“Especially when it’s a private entity like MMSA, which is doing quite well,” he said. “They are millions and millions in the black.”

The problem is that there is not enough information available about the true consequences of air service to the county itself, not just the Town of Mammoth, the supervisors said.

While all of them noted that they support year-round air service (in fact, the county already gives $45,000 a year to support the fall shoulder season flights), it was clear as the discussion progressed that the devil is in the details.

Hazard was the least supportive of the option.

He’s always had concerns that the agreement between Mammoth Mountain, the town government and Horizon Air/Alaska Airlines is a “bad agreement” with the airline receiving too much in subsidies.
And, he said, “The Town’s got $10 million in reserve. Even with their issues that are mostly self-inflicted (they are not doing badly.)”

The only wholehearted support for the subsidy came from District 3 (June Lake and some of Mammoth) supervisor Vikki Bauer. To her, the issue is simple.

“As a small business owner, the first thing you do is protect your revenue stream,” she said.

“It’s been made clear that year- round air service increases property values in Mammoth and an increase in property values is an increase in the income coming into the general fund.”

She added that the subsidy the county already agreed to last year was an “immediate fix” to a problem she is proud of fixing, but that it’s not enough.

“I believe we will get back the $215,000 in property value increase,” she said. “If we lose any ground on air service ... we are going to become the victims ... even with the problems facing the county, it’s worth it.”

But the rest of the board was simply too wary of the whole issue to bite.

And there’s another problem...

Instead, they asked county staff and the county’s tourism commission to start gathering information about the impacts of air service to the county.

County Administrator Dave Wilbrecht noted another possible snafu: a possible conflict of interest for Hazard, whose wife works for Mammoth Mountain.

Wilbrecht also suggested that it was time for a very “big picture” discussion of the overall relationship between the Town of Mammoth Lakes and Mono County, particularly on how the two governments market themselves and promote tourism.

“There might be projects we should be doing together,” he said. “We need to have that discussion and within it, we can also address air service.”

When it was all over Tuesday, the board chose to funnel this big picture discussion to the county’s tourism commission first, which, incidentally, had recommended the board go for the subsidy.
Wilbrecht said if the data the county is looking for is available, the county will take up the subject again in March.

If not, it could be longer.

In the meantime, there will be no vote on the proposed air service subsidy by the board of supervisors. meaning the Town and Mountain are on their own for this one, at least for now.