EDITORIAL: ‘Airport 101’ … Part Two
The region’s environment as an asset base, linked strongly to the quality of life, attracts and retains people and businesses in the region.
— Using the Environment as an Economic Driver, 2005
Today’s discussion will focus on the idea of “economic drivers.” We might also be considering the idea of “economic sinkholes.”
I’d like to begin by saying that I’m friends with several of the local pilots who make use of the Archuleta County Airport at Stevens Field, and I consider them fine people, and contributors to the community. The actions of our County government should not, in my humble opinion, be seen as a reflection on the airport users.
When we quoted Airport Manager Kate Alfred in Part One of this little article series — during her January 24 meeting with the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners — she had just handed newly-elected County Commissioner Ronnie Maez a copy of the Airport Advisory Commission’s 2012 Economic Impact Study. She had introduced the document this way:
“This is for you. The other commissioners have already seen this. It basically will explain to you why the airport is probably the Number One economic driver in this county.”
We each have our own ideas about the various “economic drivers” that keep people employed in Archuleta County — if we bother to think about such things. And some citizens may believe, as Ms. Alfred does, that the Archuleta County Airport is indeed the Number One economic driver in our community.
Maybe we ought to take a minute first, to define the term, “economic driver.” According to the world’s largest guide to both reliable and unreliable information — Google — the term “economic driver” is commonly used in connection with measurements of employment, and especially in relationship to job growth.
Different industries define the term so as to reflect their own particular ideas about money and employment. In Australia, for example, the Vegetable Industry has its unique sense about which “economic drivers” will lead to growth in their particular industry.
This idea, that an economic driver is related to growth, is echoed in the 2012 Economic Impact Study produced by Ms. Alfred and a group of fellow airport users. The report begins with this statement:
For Pagosa Springs, aviation is the sound of growth. Archuleta County Airport is a major economic catalyst to our community. This economic impact study was conducted in order to have verifiable numbers to justify the taxpayer funds committed to the Airport, and clearly show the positive impact of the Airport on the community.
Our goal was to demonstrate the value and financial contribution the Airport makes to the community and thereby gain support for funding for future Airport growth and infrastructure…
You can download the full 2012 Economic Impact Study here if you didn’t already do so yesterday, in Part One.
Certainly, there are numerous ways to approach a report about taxpayer investments. One approach is to begin with a commitment to truth and transparency — to attempt to write a report that fully and accurately assesses the positive and negative aspects of the public investment at hand.
You could, for example, measure the number of actual jobs created by the investment. You could take into account the amount of noise and environmental pollution created by the investment. You could ask whether the return on investment is comparable to what might result from other, different uses of taxpayer revenues. You could tabulate how many citizens directly benefit from the investment… and ask if they are the ones paying the bill.
The 2012 Economic Impact Study for the Archuleta County Airport took a very different approach, as they stated so clearly in their Introduction. The purpose of the study was not to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the County Airport, but rather, to “gain support for funding for future Airport growth and infrastructure.” The report did not seek to provide a wide range of verifiable numbers, but only those ‘verifiable numbers’ that supported generous taxpayer subsidy of a very expensive facility used by a select few Archuleta County residents.
As we consider those supposedly verifiable numbers, it appears that “growth” is indeed an important component of Airport Manager Kate Alfred’s definition of an “economic driver” — if we look at this chart, from page 14 of the 30-page study.
The 2012 report basically makes the claim that, between the years 2002 and 2012, 43 airplane owners who responded to a survey — out of 46 respondents — moved to Pagosa Springs for one reason, and one reason only: because we had an airport.
“110 surveys were sent out to the aviation community and 46 members responded to the survey. Of the 46 respondents, only 43 could be qualified as having moved to Pagosa solely because of the airport’s existence.”
These 43 respondents were ‘qualified’ by the fact that they stated, in the survey, that they would not have moved to Pagosa Springs if the County Airport had not existed here. The impact study’s authors then estimated how much money these 43 people had spent on homes, taxes, airplane hangers and ‘commodities’ between 2002 and 2011, and calculated the “overall contribution to Archuleta County by aviation community” — the economic impact of these 43 families — as approximately $39.9 million over a 10-year period. An average impact, therefore, of about $4 million per year. Or about $100,000 per family.
The study also calculated the “economic contribution” of visitor traffic coming through the Airport during 2011 at $1.7 million.
We should note that these numbers are not the dollar amounts paid into the operations of the Airport. Rather, they were supposedly related to the everyday, ordinary expenses that everyone in Archuleta County pays while living — or visiting — here. If we want to see how much the aviation community contributes to the operations of the actual Airport, we probably want to look to the County Budget. According to the County’s approved 2017 budget, the aviation community — including local residents and visitors — contributed about $322,552 to Airport operations between 2014 and 2016.
During that same time period, the taxpayers who did not use the Airport contributed about $1.34 million. Or roughly four times the amount contributed by the aviation community.
Curiously, the County’s 2017 budget classifies the Airport as an “enterprise.” We would do well, as taxpayers, to understand the meaning of that particular word. Legally, a “government enterprise” in Colorado may not receive more that 10 percent of its revenue from state or local governments; generally, this means that the “enterprise” must generate at least 90 percent of its income from user fees, or federal sources, or private donations.
The other part of being classified as a “government enterprise” is that such entities have the ability to incur government debt without having to seek taxpayer approval.
Is it possible that Archuleta County has been mistakenly (or illegally) classified a taxpayer-subsidized airport as a “government enterprise” so that the Airport could borrow large amounts of money without a vote?