Greater government oversight. Rising expenses. Rents below market value.A combination of those factors, according to Sutter County officials and supervisors, is what took the county’s airport off a “fiscal cliff” of its own in recent years, and a situation those same officials said they hope it’s emerging from now.
To Supervisor Stan Cleveland, two developments emerged about a decade ago that put the airport’s finances on shaky ground. The first was the post-Sept. 11, 2001, environment in which the federal government’s push for homeland security led to greater oversight of general aviation airports like Sutter County’s.
And the second was a response to greater calls for transparency by taxpayers, leading to an accounting practice called A-87 being imposed on the county to fully document how much the airport costs other departments, such as building maintenance, the administrator’s office and the auditor-controller. A report prepared by the county two years ago shows the result: While revenues remained level, expenses — as documented under A-87 — begin rising and caused the airport’s first deficit in recent years in 2004-05.
More recently, county Public Works director Douglas Gault said without any changes, the airport would have annual deficits of $20,000 for years to come.
Interim County Administrator Shawne Corley said as the deficit continued in subsequent years — driven by both A-87 and the rising costs of doing business — the county began investigating how to raise more revenue and where to cut airport costs.
“But I think we’ve hit the floor in what we can reduce and still operate a safe airport,” she said.
The airport’s financial problems have also begun to affect other portions of the county’s budget. To keep it operating, the county has given the airport funds — meant to be self-sustaining — loans of as much as $32,000 in recent years out of the county’s General Fund.
Both taxpayer watchdogs and at least one county supervisor have said calling those “loans” is inaccurate when there’s no plan for the money to be paid back.
While Corley said the loan during the current fiscal year isn’t being drawn on to the full extent possible, the General Fund is also the county’s main reservoir of discretionary money.
“Anybody who works for the state or county, their main job is to protect the General Fund because it’s the main fund that goes for taxpayer activities,” she said. “You don’t want to use it on relatively specialized activities.”