Commissioners hope to keep airport afloat

County faces challenge of replenishing dwindling capital reserves

— Yampa Valley Regional Airport has grown to become a significant economic engine in Northwest Colorado, but the Routt County commissioners are struggling to see how it can continue to annually transfer $200,000 and up from its general fund to continue operating the airport.

County Commissioner Dan Ellison said recently that it is a common fallacy to believe that the county's financial support of the airport benefits only the ski resort community in Steamboat Springs.

"We believe that many only see YVRA as a facility which benefits the winter recreation community and primarily Steamboat Springs," Ellison wrote in a recent letter to Congressman Scott McInnis. "The benefit to northwest Colorado is substantially greater than the obvious benefit to the ski industry."

Of the 267 people employed at the airport in both the private and public sector, Ellison said, 81 percent live in Hayden or Moffat County. That payroll is in excess of $1 million.

In addition, Ellison said, the $190,000 in sales tax collected at the airport provided 34 percent of the total municipal sales tax for the town of Hayden in 1999.

Among the Moffat County residents working at the airport this winter is sky cap Brandon Howell of Craig.

"I love this job. I've met so many people," Howell said. "I've met half-a-dozen people from New York. I've met people from Venezuela and people from France. I've met all sorts of cool people here."

Howell works at the airport transferring baggage by cart from the luggage carousel to waiting taxis. He said the sky caps shoot for making $100 in tips on busy Saturdays and Sundays. He said the most he made in a single day this winter was $170.

This summer, Howell plans to work for a landscaping company in Craig.

"Certainly, most of the jobs at the airport are seasonal," Ellison said. "But that is not all bad when you consider that members of the Barnes, Funk and Camilletti families and others work at the airport, which allows them to continue to ranch in the valley."

The challenge facing Ellison and fellow Commissioners Nancy Stahoviak and Doug Monger is finding a way to replenish the airport's dwindling capital reserves while the county continues to subsidize annual operations at the airport out of the county's general fund.

County bookkeeping manager Margot Gasch, who devotes about 70 percent of her time to the airport's finances, said private sector businesses would typically replenish their capital budget from operating profits. Because the airport essentially loses money when revenues and expenses are balanced at the end of the year, the capital fund is not being replenished. Instead, the county is transferring six figures annually just to bring the operating budget up to zero. The subsidy in 1999 was $303,629, and while the county budgeted $669,335 this year, the transfer won't be that big because the cost of snow- removal operations this winter will wind up below budget.

An overriding concern is the capital budget, which contained $864,250 at the end of 1997 but could dip to as low as $200,000 when 2000 figures are wrapped up in about a month.

The capital fund is the source of the 10 percent match the county must supply to offset Federal Aviation Administration grants for airport improvements. The county is undertaking a couple of small apron paving projects at the airport this summer. But looming in the distance is a $3 million runway overlay budgeted for 2002. The county's match would be $300,000, and Gasch said there's a distinct possibility that project would require an additional transfer of funds.

An even bigger project would be the construction of a new airport terminal. County officials say the terminal at Yampa Valley Regional Airport is maxed out on Saturdays during ski season when passengers from up to three full-sized jets flood the baggage carousel and ground transportation areas.

The county has not made a decision to build a new terminal, but it has hired architectural consultants to study the possibility. The contract with the architects is for $95,000, but 90 percent of that could be reimbursed by the FAA if the terminal goes forward.

Stahoviak said people who think the revenue stream at the airport could retire bonded indebtedness for a new terminal are mistaken.

"I feel really strongly about not fooling ourselves that we can repay that kind of debt with money from the airport," Stahoviak said. "It's not going to happen. As the level of operations at the airport increase, the operating deficit will increase. We'll have to (increase) what we're going to the general fund for, and that can't happen."

Monger said he believes the county must find a way to reduce the annual operating deficit at the airport.

Aaron Wiltfong, who operates the Avis rental car agency at the airport, said based on his experience at other mountain airports, Routt County's airport has been missing out on potential revenue stream from parking.

Airport Manager Jim Parker pointed out the airport just began charging for parking last fall. A survey conducted by his staff confirmed the Aspen airport generates $185,000 a year from parking. Sun Valley, Idaho, realizes $144,000 annually from parking fees and Durango takes in $185,000.

Parker believes the time is approaching when Routt County government will have to ask its constituents first if they want an airport, and second, how they prefer to fund it.

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