Urdi pushes air service to balky supervisors

Mammoth Lakes Tourism Director John Urdi came out of Tuesday’s county supervisors meeting looking like a man at the end of his rope.

“I feel like I’ve failed,” he told the five supervisors Tuesday, as he made the case that the county should contribute at least $100,000 toward year-round air service subsidies next year. “If you do not see the value of air service to you, to this county, to your constituents, after two years, I’ve failed.

“I’ve given numbers to support the request,” he said. “They aren’t my numbers. They are clear, objective numbers from American Express that trace how much money air travelers spend. Air service brings $5.3 million a summer to Mono County, with about $860,000 of that spent outside of Mammoth Lakes. In the winter, air service brings about $37 million to the county, with $22 million in incremental spending that otherwise would not be here.

“The summer return on direct spending is $8.60 cents for every dollar invested in the subsidy by the county. This is money spent at county businesses.”

Those numbers translate directly to money in the county coffers, via transient occupancy taxes (TOT), which then fund community centers and roads and bridges, he said.

These are services that all county residents use, whether they know where the money came from or not.
The argument that most air travelers will spend most of their money at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area—in winter—is inaccurate, he said.

“Based on summer 2011 American Express data, visitors spend about 27 percent at MMSA hotels and facilities,” Urdi said. “The other 73 percent is spent on other businesses in Mammoth Lakes and the county.”

It was one of many similar presentations that Urdi has made in the past, trying to get the county supervisors on board with helping Mammoth Mountain Ski Area and the Town of Mammoth Lakes keep seamless, year-round air service in place at the Mammoth Yosemite Airport.

The supervisors have balked at paying for air service subsidies for years, worried about constituents who live outside of Mammoth—and some inside of Mammoth—who believe subsidizing air service does not bring enough direct benefits to justify the expense.

The county does contribute toward air service—$45,000 two years ago, $85,000 last year—but in the past few months, the county has expressed increased wariness about kicking in money next year, especially in the face of a state that is pulling more and more money out of the county to fund its own budget deficit.

For the county, it all comes to a head next week. It’s county budget review time and that means time is limited for the county to decide if Urdi’s request for the subsidy for next year will fly.

“We want to support air service, in some way,” said Supervisor Larry Johnston.

“But not forever, maybe for five years, and only to the degree that we can, given our other budget needs. Maybe it will be the $100,000, maybe it will not.”

Supervisor Tim Hansen, who represents North County, has been clear he opposes air service subsidies if doing so will threaten critical services to county residents, such as the senior population that is concentrated more in his district than other districts.

But other supervisors said there is hope for Urdi and the rest of the Eastern Sierra’s air service advocates.
Supervisor Vikki Bauer said she believes there are enough votes to give Urdi at least some of what he wants.

“I think we have the support,” she said.

She noted that the June Lake community supports the county’s participation in air service subsidies.

But Bauer and other supervisors are also keenly aware the recent $100,000 given to June Lake to keep it afloat this winter means that there is that much less in the county’s emergency fund.

So, once again, Urdi waits.

Until, at least, next week.