BY ALEX HOEFT & MAYUMI ELEGADO | Moonshine Ink
Common talk in our community says the airport is made of money and those seeking funds have been taking notice. Between 2003 and 2019, the Truckee Tahoe Airport District spent $16,723,472 in non-aviation investments within its boundaries. The list of beneficiaries grows every year, and many candidates in recent elections highlight these funds as a point of interest. Not everyone agrees with the special district’s actions, wondering why the airport is spending money on youth sports or land purchases.
But in fact, community benefit is a stated mission of the airport and its general manager, Kevin Smith, sees it as a moral imperative.
“We’re flying airplanes and jets in and out of here and making noise,” Smith said. “We remind people we’re here and … we feel an obligation to get out there, see what we can do as an airport district to provide benefit in the community at large while at the same time implementing our mission.”
With other funding restricted, the airport’s property tax revenue, roughly $7 million for 2021, is the source of money for community-benefit bestowal. What once was a couple hundred dollars gifted to local Little League teams has morphed into a calculated process to fund regional trails, a new pool, affordable housing, and more.
“A lot of people think we’re flush with cash; we’re not,” Smith stated. “But our board does allocate a certain amount of money every year for agency partnerships and community sponsorships because we think it’s really, really important to help support some of those things.”
Allotted annual funds have thus far been able to cover the needs of interested parties, but as the money is used in higher profile situations, the airport board and executive staff expect a more competitive process in years to come. That, and some former and current board members want to see a more regional approach to the funding of projects.
“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,” said David Diamond, one of the newest board members. “I feel like we have to be careful that it truly is a benefit to everybody who paid into that pot.”
Piloting the Program
Donations to the local community have existed in one form or another for a long time. Smith, who took the helm of the district in 2010, guesses the airport has offered various regional contributions since the 1960s (the district was formed in 1958). The disbursements run the gamut, from small amounts for youth sports uniforms to six figures supporting other agencies.
One such large transaction in 2015/16 triggered a careful look at the district’s community spending. When the Truckee-Donner Recreation and Park District sought to close a funding gap for its new aquatic center, it approached the airport. Building requirements from being within the airport’s impact zone increased construction costs — such as heavier beams and sturdier window glass to handle the impacts of a potential aircraft accident. Recognizing this, and with considerable support from the community who showed up to board meetings on the topic, the airport provided $945,000 in partnership funding.
“It’s a clear benefit and a clear mitigation partnership measure that the airport contributed to the construction costs of that building based on the impact associated with the normal flight path,” said Hardy Bullock, the airport’s director of aviation and community services. “I think it was an enlightening moment for everybody that the airport has an impact but also plays a positive role in constructing things that everybody shares benefits from, so the pool was the start of that.”
Yet district staff and board realized that funding the pool was going to open the door for other interested parties with projects needing money, said Lisa Wallace, a former TTAD board member who served two full terms starting in 2012. She joined an ad hoc committee to officialize a community-money program. From this process, a new policy 311 was adopted Dec. 22, 2015, outlining the district’s strategy to accept solicitations for both the smaller community sponsorships and the more hefty agency partnerships.
Wallace sees great promise in the agency partnerships, but an aspect for which she pushed hard was “explicit action” from partnering agencies through formal resolutions, to encourage transparent accountability. The first version of the 311 policy didn’t require this stipulation, but a subsequent update established it.
“I remain a proponent of special districts, the counties, and the towns working together to the best way we can to bring money and goals and programs together to serve the constituents in ways that are as coordinated and collaborative as we can get,” Wallace said. “Policy 311 is one way that can happen — it’s not the only way that can happen, but it’s one way.”
Under Policy 311 in its current form, the community sponsorship program provides cash funding up to $3,000 to nonprofits or public organizations that have successfully applied; recipients are selected by executive airport staff. The larger amounts fall under the agency partnership category ($3,001 and up), which go to other special districts or local governments, and are voted on by airport board members.
Normally both 311-policy programs are on rolling deadlines throughout the year, but the Agency Partnership Program was put on hiatus in January 2020 due to popularity and a need for prioritization.
“In past years we’ve always had enough funding to meet the demands that were coming to us,” Smith explained. “We saw in 2020 that wasn’t going to be the case, so the board said, let’s really take a closer look at this and see if there’s some improvements we can make.”
A rehaul of the 311 policy, board members and staff agreed, was in order. The board is slated to discuss proposed revisions to the Agency Partnership Program on Jan. 27, an agenda item that was postponed from Oct. 28, 2020. The staff report proposes a number of revisions, including an updated, 20-page agency partnership submission guide and application (for external use), and program handbook (for internal use).
But it’s important to note that not all community funding falls under the 311 policy. For example, some projects are classified as service agreements, where the airport pays for work rendered or are otherwise initiated by the staff and board.
In general, partnerships between agencies are fairly common, Smith emphasized, “we’re not the only government agency doing that.”
“PI-311 is really a tool for the community, whether they be nonprofits, public agencies, etc., to have a defined path to approach our district to see if we have interest in partnering on a project they are working on or something they desire to see accomplished that benefits our common constituents,” he explained in an email.
Rick Stephens, board member since 2016 and just re-elected in 2020, wrote in an email that he “ran on spending more TTAD property tax in the communities that pay that property tax.”
In 2017, Stephens said, according to his calculations the district spent approximately $500,000 in the community. That number has increased each year to approximately $1.5 million in 2020.
California state law is lenient when allowing special districts to determine what qualifies as community benefit under their enabling statute — power to act is expected to be determined by the governing body rather than by a court.
Past partnerships by the airport include $85,000 to Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association and North Tahoe Public Utility District for trail restoration along Highway 267 to Kings Beach, and half a million to the Truckee Springs project. In the community sponsorship camp, the TTAD has provided $3,000 to the Tahoe Community Nursery School, $1,500 to the North Tahoe High School swim team, and $1,000 to Girls on the Run – Sierras, among many others.
For fiscal year 2021, the board of directors set aside $100,000 for community sponsorships and $1,688,477 for large-scale partnerships. The money for community sponsorships was chosen with COVID-19 in mind and a lack of applicants during 2020 thanks to so many canceled events ($53,000 of the allotted $70,000 was distributed). The $100,000 in theory will help the expected surge for the new year. “It’s very rare for us to turn someone away,” Bullock said.
“And then on the other side, they usually [set aside] a million dollars from the property tax allocation for the partnership program, but it’s divided into three buckets essentially,” GM Smith said. “There’s transportation money, there’s housing money, and then there’s [the 311 policy] partnership money. They’ll move the money back and forth and around as requests come forward.”
Just over $688,000 of the agency partnerships is set aside for multi-year commitments made by the board prior to 2021 supporting the TART Free Fare Project, Mountain Housing Council, and Aim High, among others. That leaves $1 million at the discretion of the board in 2021.
Even when budgeted, the district has not always spent all of the money allocated for community spending, Smith said. “It is typically true that [the board does] not spend the full amount budgeted.”
Redefining the ‘airport ATM’
When considering the far-reaching fingers of the airport district, Diamond, who began his board member term on Dec. 11, 2020, likes to think of Tahoma. The community, though about a 40-minute drive from the airport on a good day, is part of the district and thus its residents pay into the airport property tax coffers.
“When I was campaigning, I saw a lot of people in that area who didn’t even realize we had an airport,” Diamond said. “You don’t see it on your property tax statement; you don’t see ‘airport’ and then a dollar figure. It’s lumped. Basically, unless you’ve been educated on this, you’d have no idea. I always think of them with regard to, they’re paying into this tax pool and are basically benefitting from nothing the airport provides unless they’re flyers.”
Diamond wants the proposed 311 policy update to focus on funding projects and programs with full regional benefits. Right now, he compares the two programs to an ATM: “If you want money, you go to the airport board and you stand in line like you’re at an ATM and you ask the ATM for money.”
Rather than providing money to whatever organization or agency might want it, Diamond “would like to see the airport focus on building partnerships with the other agencies, prioritize the majority of that money in our budget toward funding the bigger regional-wide benefit programs, and then after that, focusing on the individual partnerships.”
The Tahoe Truckee Workforce Housing Agency, a joint powers agreement that seeks housing for its and other agencies’ employees, is a type of project he wants to see more of. Forming the JPA in 2020 through a resolution was the significant action, Smith said, but the district also contributed $30,000 in 2020 from the housing bucket of community funds.
The TTAD’s legal counsel, Josh Nelson, noted in a staff report explaining the recommended 311 policy changes that applicants “simply providing a benefit to the surrounding community or generating goodwill is insufficient. Rather, we need to tie the partnership to some dignified airport purpose.”
At the May 22, 2019 board meeting, members of the Airport Community Advisory Team
(a community-volunteer committee focused on minimizing airport impacts) offered to provide insight to directors regarding the Agency Partnership Program. The board agreed and directed staff to incorporate ACAT recommendations into the 311 policy revisions. Stacy Caldwell, CEO of the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation with 20 years of experience as a grant maker and a current ACAT member, played a significant role both in requesting that the board seek guidance from the citizen advisory group and providing ideas to rehaul the policy. Emily Vitas, who oversees the JPA workforce housing agency and is a former TTCF employee, also played a significant role in crafting the proposed policy-311 overhaul.
“Believe it or not, giving away money is one of the hardest things you can do in a fair, transparent, and for the greatest good way,” Caldwell said.
ACAT’s recommendations to disperse that money responsibly included “clearly and publicly” announcing the program and its upcoming deadlines, considering an annual strategic focus (like housing, forest health, STEAM, etc.), providing expectations appropriate for the requested dollar amount (“A $300 sponsorship does not require the same level of follow-up and involvement as a $100,000 partnership,” stated the specific suggestion); and conducting public opinion surveys to understand the long-term effects of the funding programs.
Caldwell shared with Moonshine personal thoughts on further guidelines for the airport in community spending: “Public funds should co-mingle with public funds that feel right,” and high-dollar capital projects would be a fitting priority.
Overall, Caldwell described the ongoing updates of the 311 policy and airport community-spending in general as “an example of slow, grinding public process that finally works,” and one that other special districts in the region should adopt.
“To me, this is a story of an organization maturing and relying on really good governance and processes to make some decisions,” she said.
If this is commonplace at local government, why does the airport get so much scrutiny?
“I think the airport has been an incredibly generous, forward-thinking, community-based agency,” Caldwell continued. “When you step into that light, you call attention to yourself, which I think is probably a ‘no good deed goes unpunished’ thing. But this should be happening across all of our agencies.”