Jackson Hole Airport’s budget for the coming fiscal year is in a holding pattern to give elected officials time to tease apart and scrutinize the nearly $80 million financial plan.
The Jackson Town Council and Teton County Board of County Commissioners, which oversee the airport and appoint its board, jointly considered the budget on May 4, when they separately OK’d a $16.5 million Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) grant. The county approved the overall budget in a 3-2 vote, with Mark Newcomb and Luther Propst dissenting.
In contrast, the town decided to put off the decision until an upcoming meeting. Among sticking points is the airport board’s recent approval of a scenic helicopter tour operation and questions over whether the airport should have set aside funds to cover its liabilities in the event of a crash.
“Is there going to be an increase to search and rescue costs to the county, and wildland firefighting costs to the community?” Councilor Jim Stanford said. “It is fully within the purview of the town and county to amend the airport budget to account for those costs.”
Jim Elwood, the airport director, presented a broad outline of the budget to commissioners and councilors. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, the airport has not yet spoken with law enforcement and search and rescue about crash contingencies, he said, but is eager to have the conversation.
Stanford also had questions about why the airport didn’t have funds set aside to launch a new public transportation program. The Ride2Fly shuttle and Taxi2Fly programs have been discontinued, leaving the public dependent on private taxis and app-based Uber and Lyft.
“We’re anxious to connect up with START and find the answers to the public transportation mode,” Elwood said. “The meetings so far have not born out to be a financially suitable outcome.”
The $16.5 million infusion from the CARES Act, which bolsters projected revenues by 26%, will help the airport be adaptable through the coming fiscal year. Otherwise, 2020 and 2021 could have brought financial hardship. The budget was built on assumptions that commercial plane traffic will fall off by 52%, and that air carrier revenue is in turn going to decrease by 24%. Other major airport revenue streams, such as rental cars, are also dependent on use of the airport, though there are also minimum-revenue guarantees built in.
Total revenue for the airport — not counting the CARES Act funds and state and federal grants for capital expenses — was estimated at $36 million. That figure is almost identical to the revenue projection for the present 2019-20 fiscal year, when the airport was as busy as ever — at least before the coronavirus crisis cratered plane traffic in March. In April, commercial plane traffic fell off by 97% compared to one year ago.
Elwood said the CARES funding was critical to keeping operations about normal.
“That’s the fortunate part of the CARES funding,” he said. “It does allow the airport some flexibility. So even though we’re predicting a reduction in passenger activity, it does give the latitude on the expense side to accommodate should those passengers return sooner than we might have forecasted.”
A breakdown of how the budget is changing is attached to the online version of this story at JHNewsAndGuide.com.
Some elected officials were eager to move along in the meeting.
Commissioner Mark Barron attempted a motion to pass the presented budget on several occasions, wanting to move on so that the boards could discuss budgets for the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board, Energy Conservation Works and a housing study. In the end, they spent nearly an hour discussing the airport and continued the other action items for when the town and county convene on June 1.
Stanford contended that the 15 minutes allotted was insufficient.
“We're abdicating our responsibility here today,” he said, “if we’re going to rush this through.”
Stanford had questions about $218,000 in travel and meeting expenses budgeted and $300,000 in legal fees forecasted for the coming July 2020-to-June 2021 fiscal year.
“The Hawaii conference and such,” he said, “you know it dwarfs what the airport is spending on its various environmental initiatives.”
High spending for the annual Hawaiian conference Stanford alluded to has caused friction with elected officials in the past. In 2013, the town and county trimmed the airport’s budget by $100,000 to encourage more judicious spending.
No such requests were on the table this year, but councilors put off making any decisions until either their May 18 meeting or the June 1 joint information meeting with the county. If there are changes to the airport budget, county commissioners would need to also OK the altered plan for the coming fiscal year.