Joe Borzelleri’s first job was as a fuel boy at Sutter County Airport when he was 12 years old.
By the time he was 16, he had bought his first plane and flew his first solo flight off the Yuba City runway. Nearly three decades later, he houses his Piper Cub in one of the airport’s hangars and squeezes in 70 hours of flight time a year.
The last thing he wants to see, he said, is for the airport to close.
“It’s just a part of my life,” he said. “This is my second home.”
So, Borzelleri rallied a group of pilots, aircraft owners and friends of the airport on Saturday to discuss how they might take over the financially failing airport and manage it as a nonprofit. Nearly 50 people filled one of the hangars to listen to the presentation and call to action.
“We can form a nonprofit to manage the day-to-day operations, but we need the help of enthusiastic pilots, aircraft owners and friends of the airport,” Borzelleri said. “I’m not looking for money — the money is here. I’m looking for volunteers.”
The idea is to model the Sutter County airport after what has happened in Turlock. About 12 years ago, the city shifted managerial control to a nonprofit to eliminate its financial obligations and reduce operational expenses. The airport is no longer in the red.
It would still be a public general aviation airport, owned by Sutter County and leased to a nonprofit management group that would be responsible for nearly all operations. The nonprofit would set hangar rates, mow grass, replace runway lights, patrol fences and control most other duties.
Sutter County has looked at other ways to make the airport financially sustainable, including for the airport to operate under the control of another government agency, an airport commission or a private company. County supervisors have raised some hangar rates and established an ordinance to address unpaid rent, said county spokesman Chuck Smith.
But leasing it to a nonprofit may be the most viable option, he said.
“The idea is people who are closer to the operation may be able to make the operation less expensive,” Smith said.
Cut out the county
Finances at Sutter County’s airport have been a problem for years, but rose to the board’s attention last fall when a loan request from the county’s general fund was denied. Public Works Director Doug Gault has said below-market lease rates for three businesses based at the airport, including two crop-dusting firms, have made it difficult for revenues to meet expenses.
Fuel and leasing for hangars and buildings makes up much of the airport’s revenue. The airport is meant to be self-sustaining, but Gault has said absent any other changes, the airport will have an annual deficit of $20,000 well into the future.
Closing the airport is not an option. Because of past grants the airport received from the federal government, it must remain in operation at least another 20 years.
Sutter County had a budget of about $812,000 for the airport in 2011-12, including a General Fund loan of $32,414.
A member of the Sutter County’s airport advisory committee, Borzelleri said the group makes no decisions and for the longest time never saw a budget. When it finally did, members were astounded by costs associated with the county’s management.
If a nonprofit can oversee the airport, it will eliminate those expenses, he said, and he expects it may even save enough to knock down costs for airport’s users. The goal is to keep the airport open and affordable.
Leasing the airport to a nonprofit seems to be a good step, and the county is receptive to the proposal, said Supervisor Jim Whiteaker
“It’s a win-win for everyone, and I think it’s the right direction to go,” he told Saturday’s crowd. “The less government has to be involved, the better.”
Support for the save
General aviation airports are largely misunderstood by the public, who see them as noisy operations that take up valuable land for the enjoyment of the rich, said Corl Leach, regional vice president of the California Pilots Association. But they drive economies, promote tourism and provide community access, alternative travel and source for disaster relief.
By becoming a chapter of the pilots association, which typically takes three to six months, the group will be better poised to take over the airport, Leach said. The association’s goal is to preserve, protect and promote general aviation airports.
“If we are going to protect Sutter County’s Airport, we need Sutter County people involved,” Leach said.
Yuba City resident Jack Kemmerly believes this area has the passion and the people to support a nonprofit. He is helping develop a charter. The group then must start collecting dues and create a board of directors before it can begin lease negotiations with the county.
“It’s going to have to be a cohesive group that has the ability to enter into a lease with some responsibility,” Kemmerly said. “Running an airport is not an easy thing. There is quite a bit of work in making it safe and operational.”
A farmer and recreational pilot, Yuba City resident Bob Amarel has used the airport for years. It’s clear there are savings to be made in eliminating the county’s responsibilities and costs, and he sees the meeting’s turnout as proof it can be done.
“That’s the thing about pilots,” he said. “We are pretty passionate. We love to fly.”
After the meeting, Borzelleri, Michael Lonon and Kyle Koshman took to the air in their Piper Cubs. The trio of yellow planes streamed through the sky for nearly an hour, as the members of the Cheap Suits Flying Club joked back and forth on the radio and practiced their alignments.
Below them lay grids of homes and business rooftops, acres of pink peach-blossomed orchards and the snaking Feather and Yuba rivers. It’s in the air, they say, that they find happiness and serenity.
“We just love to fly,” Borzelleri said.
CalPilots Editors Note: Corl Leach, CalPilots VP from Region 1, attended this meeting to assist the group. CalPilots has assisted two other groups assume airport operation responsibilties.