Wednesday, September 22, 2004
Airport tower axed by 3-2 vote
Decision could force tower closure by October 1
By Susan Wood
The Lake Tahoe (CA) Daily Tribune
Capping a somber meeting, the South Lake Tahoe City Council decided Tuesday to close the Lake Tahoe Airport tower because of budget constraints going into the next fiscal year. The airport will remain open, but the tower will no longer be manned by four contractors with Serco Management of Murfreesboro, Tenn., the company that monitored Tahoe Valley skies for the Federal Aviation Administration.
The closure is set for Oct. 1 unless the city discovers the FAA needs a 30-day notice.
“I’m under the understanding they don’t,” City Manager Dave Jinkens said after the meeting.
The 3-2 vote, with Mayor Tom Davis and Councilwoman Judy Brown opposing, culminated a series of meetings in and out of the city in which the council struggled with where and how to get the money to offset the city’s rising shared expense imposed by the FAA.
In the end, the council also agreed it would explore forming a joint powers authority to help pay for manning the tower if the city were to reopen it at a later date.
In a meeting last week between city and FAA officials, the federal agency gave the city the green light to do so and even questioned why the city wants a tower without commercial service.
The agency insisted the city determine its long-term vision.
The FAA doubled the city’s portion to pay for the tower contractor because of a new federally imposed formula.
After it raised landing fees, implemented ground transportation fees and agreed to reorganize the transit department, the city over the last few months had scraped an estimated $103,000 to be saved in the 2004-05 budget. However, Public Works Director Brad Vidro told the council the city would still be short $122,000.
That was a hard number to swallow for a city facing a $3.1 million shortfall and imposing 10 percent cuts in all city departments to help balance the budget. It’s due in its final form for a special meeting slated for 9 a.m. next Tuesday.
But public safety and economic potential had Davis and Brown holding on to the possibility of temporarily subsidizing the tower – until perhaps a funding solution could be developed.
“This is a sad day,” Davis said. “We’ve just potentially opened the city up to the biggest lawsuit,” Brown said after the meeting. She was referring to the possibility of a plane crash without the tower.
After yesterday’s long oration leading up to the $222,000 decision, no one could really nail down the economic impact on the community with or without the tower. But insiders, like airport restaurant owner Mike Weber – who’s running for one of two seats on the council – agreed to try to help gather information.
And Mindy Johnke of Superior Aviation – the flight base operator – shared figures showing a 400 percent increase in landing-fee revenue in the last year.
For different reasons, council members showed they were running out of patience.
Council members Hal Cole and Kathay Lovell – who serve on the airport plan subcommittee – have long expressed discomfort with taking money from the general fund to pay for the tower. Minden and Truckee’s airports are often cited as not having one, despite precarious weather conditions.
This time, it was Councilman John Upton sharing frustration over the unknowns.
“The frustration is the lack of hard, attributable economic data. The bottom line is – in terms of who the customers are – for whatever reason, I don’t have the knowledge of those numbers,” Upton said, partly addressing Airport Manager Mike Dikun.
In the city reorganization, Dikun would be without a job. He shared no comment Tuesday about his plans.
Former airport worker Janis Brand criticized the council for making these kinds of major decisions without an airport manager. Brand has been circulating a petition in favor of forming a Lake Tahoe Airport District, a board of specialists to govern the entity.
She’s collected about 300 signatures to present to the council.
In other transit business relative to increasing revenue, the council also doubled the BlueGo fixed route fares to 50 cents for seniors and the disabled. They will pay $1.25 less than the one-way adult fare.
The Lake Tahoe Airport tower could close Oct. 1 after the South Lake Tahoe City Council rejected plans to fund it.