Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Council votes to take back airport ops
City estimates negotiations with county will take 3 years
By Kristina Peterson
The Palo Alto (CA) Daily News
The Palo Alto City Council voted 5-3 Tuesday night to begin negotiating with Santa Clara County to take back operations of the city-owned airport, following a long and tense debate. City staff will immediately begin what they estimate will be a three-year process to terminate early the county’s airport lease, presently slated to expire in 2017. Council members Bern Beecham, LaDoris Cordell and Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto opposed the move. Council Member Dena Mossar was absent. The council members split into two camps – several felt the city did not have enough information to ascertain whether the airport could be economically viable, while the other faction argued the county’s reluctance to spend any extra money to improve the facility beyond the bare minimum meant the city was neglecting an asset it still owns.
“We would not be good custodians of our community’s property if we let it sit there for 10 years,” said Vice Mayor Larry Klein, one of the strongest supporters of having a city-run airport.
Since the county Board of Supervisors has already voted to fund only “essential, non-deferrable, grant-eligible maintenance projects or security-related projects,” the city could recover its property in 2017 in worse shape, Council Member Jack Morton said.
“The city runs the risk of getting a deteriorated facility in 2017,” agreed Ralph Britton, co-chairman of the Palo Alto Airport Working Group, a citizen task force which recommended this summer that the city immediately move to take back operations from the county.
But several council members asked why the county has so far expressed a willingness to hand the airport back to Palo Alto.
“The county is in the business of operating airports,” Council Member John Barton said. “They have others; they want out of this one. There might be a reason.”
In recent years, the county has argued that the airport is a money-loser, though City Auditor Sharon Erickson has challenged the accounting methods used by the county.
Beecham said the issue just needed more analysis from a financial perspective.
“I simply don’t know if we can do it economically,” he said. “We have no business plan for this.”
Council Member Judy Kleinberg countered that the city has gained its expertise in other fields by hiring experienced staff members or entering into public-private partnerships.
“At the moment we are on the sidelines,” she said. “I think we need to come in and start playing the game at this point.”
A substitute motion by Kishimoto to defer the start of negotiations until 2010, when the Army Corps of Engineers is slated to finish a study of levees in the area, failed 2-6. Other council members pushed to launch the lengthy process earlier.
“If we don’t start now, we’ve handicapped our ability to make decisions in the future,” Morton said.
City Manager Frank Benest said staff will return with a timeline of the negotiations, including a breakdown of the resources and staff time required.