My Turn: Does the Truckee Tahoe airport board have money to burn?
Thursday’s Truckee Tahoe Airport District board agenda includes discussion of how to deal with its $900,000 deficit. Here’s an easy answer to recovering half that amount: Accept $450,000 in grant funding from the Federal Aviation Administration. Why would the board possibly turn down free money? Last month’s meeting provided a few clues. President Michael Golden spoke at length about the fiduciary responsibility of the board to accept these funds. Kathleen Eagan, Mary Hetherington, Paul Vatistas – each of whom made campaign promises to accept federal funds – spoke out against accepting funding until they had “more time to study the issue.” But delay and indecision is not a responsible answer. Without an affirmative vote to accept the funds, the airport will lose them. Are there strings attached? Sure, and it doesn’t take expensive attorneys to figure that out – it’s all written in the FAA rules. FAA tries to require that airports operate fairly to all without discriminating against classes of pilots, types of aircraft and types of operations. They don’t always have benefit of law so their most obvious “stick” is grant assurances. When an airport accepts FAA money, it certifies that it will continue to operate the airport in accordance with FAA guidelines for a period of time. The period varies with type of grant but is generally 20 years. Most airports cooperate with most assurances although some do choose to deviate in various ways, most notably by restricting types of aircraft and establishing curfews. How much money is at stake? Truckee Airport has accrued $150,000 per year over the past two years and will accrue another $150,000 in October for a total of $450,000 in FAA entitlement money – if the board votes to accept it. This money can be applied for to pay for a project somewhat retroactively. In a recent ruling, the new hangars that were just constructed at Truckee with taxpayer dollars have been made eligible for reimbursement by the $450,000 in grant monies. If the board accepts the money to fund the hangars, the airport will have $450,000 to use at its discretion or apply to the current deficit. If the board declines the money, the airport will pay for the hangars with tax dollars as originally planned, thereby losing $450,000. Truckee airport has accepted FAA grants many times in its 50 years. Most or all of the typical grant assurances apply to the airport for the next 17 years regardless of whether more money is accepted. Accepting more money will not change the existing assurances, just reset the clock on them three more years. In fact, grants the airport has accepted for purchase of land are perpetual already, so accepting more FAA grants doesn’t in reality extend overall airport commitments at all.At the September board meeting, airport staff requested permission to apply to FAA for $450,000 to pay for the hangars, which have so far been funded with airport funds. The board deferred the matter, saying they need more time and (costly) outside legal advice to study the grant assurances. Vatistas even stated he wanted to “negotiate terms and conditions with the FAA” despite the fact that airport legal counsel advised him that this approach is unlikely to be successful.So why would the board risk losing this money? The only stated objection is grant assurances. If the board fears grant assurances, they must have in mind opting out of them. The only reason to decline FAA money is a desire to violate FAA policy about keeping the airport open and operating it fairly and without discrimination. Since such assurances are in place now, at least three members of the board appear to be laying early groundwork for near-term violation of FAA policy. If the airport decides to violate other grant assurances already in place, the FAA most certainly will cut off future grant funding. In at least one recent case, FAA cut off grant funding to an airport in Naples, FL which banned Stage II jets. (Naples sued FAA and won a court order reinstating their ability to receive future grants. Cost to taxpayers to cover legal expenses? $5 million.) Even without assurances, there are many groups who will be harmed by any closure or severe limitation to the airport. If the airport takes sufficiently egregious action, some of those groups will respond with costly legal action. Do we want to fight expensive legal battles? Do we want to support a board that thinks we can win and is willing to commit our tax dollars to do so? Bottom line, it is fiscally irresponsible and negligent for the airport board not to accept federal grant funding and thus impose $450,000 on local taxpayers. Let them know your thoughts: Michael Golden email@example.comKathleen Eagan – firstname.lastname@example.orgPaul Vatistas – email@example.comMary Hetherington – firstname.lastname@example.orgSteve Swigard – email@example.comThe board meets at 9 a.m. Thursday in the airport conference room. Tell the board to stop procrastinating, accept the federal grants, and uphold their chartered responsibility to operate the airport for the benefit of the entire community.Kathryn Kelly, DrPH, is a local taxpayer.
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