Election 2012: Truckee Tahoe airport board candidates discuss priorities, finances | SierraSun.com

Election 2012: Truckee Tahoe airport board candidates discuss priorities, finances

Photos by Margaret Moran / Sierra SunMary Hetherington

TRUCKEE, Calif. – Priorities such as the airport’s master plan and safety, along with finances, were the main topics at a Truckee Tahoe Airport District Board candidate forum last week.

Four seats on the district board are open, with Jim Morrison, an appointed incumbent, running unopposed for the one two-year term seat. The three four-year term seats features a race among Lisa Wallace, executive director of the Truckee River Watershed Council and a member of the Truckee River Legacy Foundation since 2005; Mary Hetherington, an airport district board member the past eight years and a consulting civil engineer; J. Thomas Van Berkem, an airport district board member the past four years and current board president, and a retired senior executive of a Fortune 50 company; and Gregory Jellinek, a plastic surgeon at Tahoe Forest Hospital and a pilot for 33 years.

Wallace, Hetherington, Van Berkem and Jellinek answered questions at the multi-group-hosted forum Thursday in the Truckee Town Hall, before about 20 people.

The candidates agreed that one if not all of the following were major priorities for the district over the next four years: development of the airport’s master plan, noise control and airport safety.

“What do we want to be when we grow up?” Van Berkem asked. “That’s a question that that we have struggled with, and the master plan is going to take several years to put together. It’s going to drive what we look like over the next 10 years. I think that is probably the most critical issue.

“Safety is equally something that we all have right on the top of the list … We’ve worked on noise and annoyance, reducing it, looking at changing flight paths, (a) tracking system that can identify where they are, but we can do more.”

Another issue all candidates agreed upon was the airport district made the right decision in purchasing Ponderosa Golf Course and Waddle Ranch.

“The Ponderosa Golf Course lies essentially under the departure path for the main runway, Runway 28,” Jellinek said. “If that golf course had not been purchased by the airport … the risk was for commercial or residential development in that area, which would have been a big safety issue as well as raised another order of magnitude for sound problems.”

Wallace said she would be open to other land acquisitions by the airport district in the future.

“There needs to be a similar nexus or overlap in need between acquisitions that the airport might make and supporting community open space,” she said. “Another key component is making sure that we have the financial management plan to maintain the land once it’s acquired.”

Another question posed was what the candidates thought of the airport’s current rates and fees and how they are calculated.

“Many years ago one of our (former) members had gone to an aviation seminar and a consultant was there who talked about … how rates, fees and charges should be developed,” Hetherington said. “We brought that consultant on to help us figure out how we should do that. As compared to the prairie dog approach of what are they charging, what are they charging. There is benefit in that, but there’s also benefit in having an economic reason for why you’re charging what you are charging.”

She said the airport uses elements from both pricing models in order to set its fees, an approach that Wallace supports and Jellinek said creates reasonable prices.

“I’m the only one up here that actually pays those fees and charges,” Jellinek said. “I’ve had a hangar here since 1982. I think the airport has done a reasonable job with setting their fees. I do hear complaints from the aviation community because of the increases, but they are not catastrophic. I must say, compared to charges I was paying in the Bay Area, this is fantasy island.”

Van Berkem added that the airport offers discounts to local pilots in order to preserve affordable flying.

As far as airport expenses are concerned, the candidates were asked how they would manage administrative wages and salaries.

“In the last two years we’ve brought in a compensation consulting firm and redid the whole wage structure for the organization and made sure that we were at a competitive, but not at an inappropriate compensation level,” Van Berkem said.

He said benefits including pension and medical were also looked at, which resulted in the redesign of the medical plan causing the district to save a significant amount of money.

“We are going to continue to look at that and use the expertise we have,” Van Berkem said.

It was a sentiment echoed by Hetherington.

Jellinek, however, said tenure and merit should be the basis for staff compensation.

“We want to be fair in terms of cost and control, doing the kind of analysis that’s been discussed on a regular basis,” Wallace said. “We want to manage pension costs, benefits cost, wages and salaries, but we also want to make sure because we have a great staff at the airport that we’re taking care of them.”

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