The Truckee Tahoe Airport District is often portrayed as the golden goose: flush with money and willing to fund community organizations and projects — nearly $20 million has gone from the airport into the region between 2003 and 2021. Regional trails, community pools, affordable housing, and more have benefitted from the district’s generosity. In early 2021, Moonshine Ink reported on Policy 311, which guides the airport’s community sponsorship and agency partnership programs (read Plane and Clear).
Nearly half of the district’s annual revenue comes from property taxes, $7.2 million for 2022.
“If we are going to be making decisions with regard to that [property tax] money that is not about runways or not about maintenance on the field,” Board Director David Diamond told the Ink last year, “I feel like we have to be careful that it truly is a benefit to everybody who paid into that pot.”
There are people, however, who are frustrated by the airport’s eagerness to fund community projects because they say internal improvements are either being left by the wayside — such as a need for additional hangars and ongoing support of aviation youth/community programs — or they’re expensive and unnecessary (regarding a potential new runway).
A dividing line has emerged among those who make up the airport structure: the aviation-minded and the community-minded. The disconnect, some believe, is linked to a series of recent key staff departures, and will affect the makeup of the district board, which faces a potential majority shift in this November’s elections.
“This airport board doesn’t care about the airport,” said Lt. Col. Ken Aronson, commander of the Tahoe-Truckee Civil Air Patrol Bi-State Composite Squadron. Aronson is a local pilot and ran unsuccessfully for the airport board in 2020.
Mark Covey, who worked at the airport from 2014 to March of this year, most recently as pilot and passenger outreach coordinator, left his job due in part to “a culture led by the board of directors that was not aviation-friendly.” There was not an environment to grow an aviation career, he added, and as a pilot, he felt less welcome at the Truckee Tahoe Airport. “We are all very, very community-minded,” he said of the pilot demographic in Truckee/North Tahoe. “This board has done incredible things, fantastic things … But some of the things they’re doing are counterproductive to what an airport would do.”
Contrarily, board director Mary Hetherington sees recent funding decisions as exactly what the airport should be doing. “The airport is here to serve the community. It’s not the community is here to serve the airport,” she told the Ink.
Likewise, Director Rick Stephens said, “[I believe] we do a lot for the airfield. I want to make sure we do more for the community. And I believe we have done that. My feeling is doing more for the community, as long as it has an airport nexus, we should do that.”
Then there are those in the middle, like Jamie McJunkin, one of the minds behind the newly created Friends of the Truckee Tahoe Airport group, which aims to be a watchdog and a credible voice surrounding policy at the airport. McJunkin believes the two camps want the same thing but disagree on how to get there.
“The battle lines have been drawn as if it’s two sides, community versus the airport; either/or,” he said. “This is a false choice, as it’s possible to be both pro-community and pro-airport. This third path is about making the airport a vibrant community asset. To get there, we need to make smart investments that will pay dividends in noise and safety and do more to have the airport engage externally. Starving the airport of resources will not get us there.”
To better understand the lines drawn, a breakdown of the airport district’s budget is necessary.
Of 2022’s budgeted revenue for the airport district, total $15.8 million, the highest slice comes via property tax (45%). The next closest revenue stream is 32% of the pie, collected from airside revenues (operations, fuel sales, and user fees). This year, 8% (or $1.4 million) of the airport’s $16 million in expenditures goes to community and agency partnerships.
Hetherington wants to increase the airport’s revenue outside of property taxes. She points to a study that noted the district charges lower than normal rates for certain services — a change that could increase internal revenue.
In the FBO (or fixed base operator) Fee Comparison Study performed for the district and presented at the end of 2021, the Aviation Management Consulting Group (AMCG) compared the district’s fee type pricing with the average of the industry. The district’s current charges for overnight parking are slightly to considerably lower than industry-wide averages. For example, the Truckee Tahoe Airport charges $250 per night for jets in a hanger while the FBO average is $638.
The Truckee airport currently utilizes “transient use fees,” a system that is less common at airports these days. The fee is assessed on maximum take-off weight of an aircraft, though can be waived with the purchase of a specific quantity of fuel. Transient use fees are in addition to overnight fees. Interim General Manager Robb Etnyre said the district is looking to move toward industry-standard land fees and ramp fees, and that he’s in the process of outreach. He plans to further address the topic at the Aug. 24 board meeting.
“I support instituting landing fees and getting away from this transient use fee,” Hetherington said. “That’s an anomaly in the industry.”
She also supports raising lease amounts for some of the organizations utilizing airport real estate, like Skydive Truckee and Soar Truckee (proposed on p. 36 of an AMCG Airport Rent Study Update), and wants to sell a 40-acre airport-owned piece of land off Joerger Drive to the Town of Truckee to use for housing or industrial resources rather than doing a land swap with the Tahoe-Truckee Sanitation Agency to use as its disposal field — “unnecessary when they already own over 700 acres in the area off Joerger [Drive], many of which could be used to meet other needs in our region,” Hetherington wrote in a later email.
While Hetherington seeks to increase aviation revenue directly, McJunkin points to the passive revenue that aviation brings to the community.
As funds flow from the district in the form of community benefit monies, to the tune of the aforementioned $20 million over 18 years, McJunkin said airport users pour money into the Truckee/North Tahoe community. A 2018 report commissioned by the district that looked at the airport’s economic impact indicated that in 2017, passengers utilizing the airport brought about $30 million in direct spending to the local economy. A more recent study has not happened.
“Our local economy is a service-based economy,” McJunkin said regarding the report’s information, noting that the airport’s impact in 2022 would likely be higher than it was in 2017. “Unless we retool our economy to be based on things other than services and tourism, the airport is an important economic engine. It is not intellectually honest to cite the funds flowing from the community to the airport without also citing what benefit flows from the airport back to the community, which is more than 10 times. That’s a good trade for our region if we can mitigate the undesirable impacts.”
Those left behind
In the eyes of some board members, opportunities to lower internal costs funded by taxpayer dollars could come in the form of shifting responsibility for programs from the district. One cited example is a community aviation program called Civil Air Patrol, which, alongside the Experimental Aircraft Association Truckee chapter, has been looking for a new home for years.
The Truckee airport’s Civil Air Patrol educates a new generation of pilots and provides training for search and rescue squads, see Citizens on Patrol. Aronson heads the Civil Air Patrol as well as the patrol’s Mission to Mars summer camps. Civil Air Patrol is one of many on-field operators utilizing airport real estate. Working with the minds behind the local EAA branch — born of a national organization made up of aviation enthusiasts — and the Truckee Tahoe Airshow and Family Festival, Aronson wants to see a new hangar built for community benefits (like his programs, plus others) on the airport’s land.
The current EAA hangar, which Civil Air Patrol and Mission to Mars use, he says, is nearing the end of its useful life and is located too far away from the airport terminal building. The new hangar could be located adjacent to the main building, where a hangar once existed until a snowstorm in 2015 damaged it.
In August 2020, airport staff recommended commencing the process to find a suitable replacement for EAA and other programs in that building. The board agreed to find a new location. A year later, the board decided to remove a proposed $25,000 study for replacing the EAA building from the 2022 budget.
“We don’t have an obligation to provide space for them [EAA],” Director Diamond said during the Aug. 25, 2021, meeting where he pushed for EAA itself to take the lead in finding a new location, which may not necessarily be on airport land.
“I have no problem providing space for them, but I do have a problem in making big investments of taxpayer money for this process … I think we need to prioritize the things that are truly our responsibility from the things that are not actually our responsibility.”
Diamond, a pilot himself, said he still abides by this approach — that if the district is “going to spend millions of tax dollars to build a new structure, is that the structure district taxpayers would want most? As airport officers, we can’t forget that the majority of our constituents never use our facilities, yet they still pay for them.”
Etnyre said he’s reviewing short- and long-term priorities of the district and plans to make several recommendations for the upcoming budget process. He considers finding a long-term configuration for the EAA and Civil Air Patrol integral to the district.
Another point of friction is the proposal for a new, third runway, with the goal of reducing flights over residential areas, mentioned briefly but ultimately eliminated in the 2015 TRK Airport Master Plan’s runway alternatives.
“The board is in the process of researching alternatives; this is the responsibility of any board,” Hetherington shared. “After the Citation crash into the Ponderosa Fairway Estates neighborhood and the Cirrus crash adjacent to the Lahontan neighborhood in 2021, a letter signed by 137 individuals from neighborhoods throughout Truckee and North Tahoe was submitted to the board members.”
She continued, saying the petition had 12 proposals, one of which asked the board to evaluate the addition of a runway that could direct air traffic over Prosser Reservoir and away from residential areas.
“In response, the board hired consultants to research whether this 16/34 runway could be a potential solution to moving some of the aircraft some of the time,” Hetherington continued. “There are five options being addressed in the study, including the option to do nothing.”
Runway 2/20 is one of the airport’s current two runways, and one that many in the pilot community think should be improved upon rather than spending millions more for the potential Runway 16/34.
Director Stephens told Moonshine he’d like to see Runway 2/20 widened and extended, but that it’s still a complicated project.
“The big issue with 16/34 is … we need to get it into the airport master plan and then submit it to the [Federal Aviation Administration] to see what they think of it,” Stephens said. “One, from an operation point-of-view and two, from a funding point-of-view. The cost of this runway could be well over $40 million, and if the FAA is not going to [help fund] it, which is questionable, we’d have to bond for it and see how that goes.
“The other issue is I don’t want to build this unless we know pilots are going to use it,” he added. “… There’s been a lot of feedback from pilots that it’s a waste of time.”
An April 20 open house focused in part on analysis of Runway 16/34 had multiple comments expressing concern over choosing the new runway instead of improving Runway 2/20.
“The idea that we are going to drop everything and pursue building a third runway, it’s completely counter to what makes sense to a pilot,” Covey, the former airport employee, said. “The winds are prominently out of the south, southwest. Putting in a runway that has a crosswind approach is nonsensical … If something went wrong, if you’re flying toward Martis Valley, how do you get out of there? … Runway 20, put a little length on it and grooving on it and it will facilitate … larger aircraft and potentially change the noise contour.”
The existing runway has $410,500 from an FAA grant for reconstruction design and is currently planned to undergo reconstruction. “The FAA has approved about $4.9 million for Runway 2/20 reconstruction in 2023,” Etnyre explained. “Cost and approval of potential future widening and/or extending Runway 2/20 are only rough estimates at this point, and if approved, would require district funding.”
The review of Runway 2/20 is part of the current master plan update and Airport Layout Plan update.
In some key instances, such as approving the 2022 Truckee Tahoe Airshow and Family Festival and pursuing the 40-acre land exchange agreement with TTSA, Hetherington and Diamond have been the minority in 3-2 votes.
“My goal on the airport board is to research and analyze options that serve our Truckee/Tahoe communities,” Hetherington explained. “I am acknowledged by my fellow board members as being the most prepared. On many occasions the board has had unanimous votes; I do wish that we had more unanimous votes for what is best for the entire region.”
Mission-oriented, for better or worse
In an Aug. 10, 2021, special meeting, the board unanimously voted to change the airport district’s mission statement:
From The Truckee Tahoe Airport is a community airport that provides high-quality aviation facilities and services to meet local needs. We strive for low impact on our neighbors while enhancing the benefit to the community-at-large.
To The Truckee Tahoe Airport aims to provide safe, high-quality services and facilities, reduce impact on airport neighbors and the environment, and invest in opportunities that increase community safety and provide sustained benefit to the entire Truckee Tahoe region.
“They took [out] the word aviation,” Aronson reflected. “We provide services to our community, not aviation. So … we’re no longer an airport special district; we are a special district for the community.”
In an email exchange with Moonshine, Diamond disagreed with the claim that the district doesn’t spend enough on the airport. “As just one example, the control tower, which I support, costs just under $1 million annually. By contrast, the airport board approves about $1.2 million annually in various community investments. Using the findings of our 2021 cost allocation study as a guide, I’m hopeful we will find even more opportunities for providing the sustained community investment we mention in our mission statement.”
Etnyre is working with district staff to develop a draft budget for 2023. As part of that process, he’s reviewing the district’s mission alongside airport sustainability model factors like economic viability, natural resource conservation, operational efficiency, and social responsibility.
“Like many organizations with a large cross section of infrastructure, and a mission that clearly outlines high-quality services and facilities, investment and maintenance of airport facilities and land needs to be a funded priority,” he shared.
Cleared for departure
Through the creation of the friends of the airport group, composed entirely of local individuals and businesses and includes pilot-informed perspectives, McJunkin said he sees the organization bringing light to policy efforts, building bridges, and “address[ing] the polarization and anti-airport sentiment within the board that has hurt staff morale and contributed to the resignations.”
Kevin Smith, who served as general manager of the district for 12 years, and former director of aviation and community services, Hardy Bullock, who left after 15 years, departed from the airport in consecutive months (May 6 and June 22, respectively). Smith’s annual performance review took place on Jan. 26 of this year. He notified the board of his intended departure on March 31. Bullock currently serves as Nevada County’s District 5 supervisor.
Both Smith and Bullock now work for Mead & Hunt, which offers, among other planning and design expertise, airport industry consulting. Mead & Hunt has worked previously with the airport district as a consultant.
“Kevin resigned and very shortly thereafter Hardy resigned,” Director Stephens said. “Hardy was interested in interviewing for the general manager position, or interim general manager position, but as a supervisor of Nevada County, he couldn’t do both. [Per] the legal review by our attorney and the state attorney general’s office, he could not be the general manager of Truckee Tahoe Airport and be a supervisor of Nevada County.”
Etnyre is serving as interim GM through Oct. 31. He previously worked as head of the Tahoe Donner Homeowners Association. Stephens said he expects Etnyre will be hired as permanent general manager, and likely before Oct. 31. “I think he’s doing a fantastic job,” Stephens said.
The board is actively seeking someone with aviation experience to take Bullock’s place. Etnyre said the district will likely have someone hired by the end of 2022.
Hetherington, who’s served as a director for 16 years, and Director Kathryn Rohlf, appointed in October 2020 after Jim Morrison stepped down, are up for reelection, and both are seeking to retain their 4-year seats.
New challengers include Chris Henderson, husband of Truckee Mayor Courtney Henderson and chief investment officer for venture capital firm Myrtlewood Capital, and Mike Daniel, pilot and creative by trade who runs Truckee-based design studio Bunkhouse Collective. The candidate filing period ends Aug. 12.
In light of the upcoming election, McJunkin is hopeful the direction of the board will veer toward middle ground rather than extremes, as it currently is. “It is a disservice to the community to conclude that investment in the airport only benefits airport users and not the broader community,” he said. “This frame of mind is shortsighted and does not reflect the current reality at [the Truckee airport].”
The problem is that the airport has too much money. In spite of subsidizing pilots and giving away money to most everyone who asks, it still has a surplus.
How do we go about reducing the $7 million/year property tax subsidy they receive? I resent paying airport tax. It is of no benefit to me and in spite of expensive consultants arguing for a benefit to the community, this is just a boondoggle. Much better to let taxpayers keep their money or use it for something useful like libraries.
As a regular user of the Truckee Roundhouse at the airport (and of the airport cafe) my impression is that the heaviest use of the airport is by commuter jets, a use that benefits an extremely small segment of the community. (I confess to not having actual data to support this impression.) While such users do bring money to the local economy, the $30 million per year in community benefit claimed by aviation supporters is a grossly exaggerated figure which assumes none of the arriving passengers would come to the area if they didn’t fly here. That kind of financial justification is reminiscent of the specious figures used to support public funding of sports arenas and stadiums. I do recognize that there are other aviation uses that do benefit the community–supporting SAR and Life Flight and supporting firefighting aircraft are two.
8% seems an extremely low amount of community benefit spending, given the large proportion of district revenue that comes from property taxes. I would like to see more airport revenue spent on non-aviation projects and more of the revenue generated by fees paid by aviation users. As a result of this article I will certainly be paying closer attention to airport district elections in the future and voting for candidates who support the community benefits of the airport.