The city council voted May 25 to award a 10-year contract to Sierra Pacific Aviation to manage Willits Municipal Airport for the city. The vote was 4-1, with Councilman Larry Stranske opposed.
The terms of the agreement have Sierra Pacific managing the airport in exchange for all proceeds from hangar and tie-down rents plus airport fuel sales. The original proposal, floated in July 2010, had Sierra Pacific paying rent to the city in exchange for managing the property. Why this changed was not discussed at the meeting. The city financial analysis has existing rentals and fuel sales providing about $23,000 annually. The city manager also expected the city to benefit from a reduction in overhead and administration costs. Exactly how this will be achieved was also not delineated.
The city will still be responsible for maintenance of the airfield, including runways, taxiways, tie-down areas, and common-use ramp. It also includes bluff stabilization, weed control, asphalt paving, patching and resurfacing as necessary. Fulfilling all Federal Aviation Administration and CalTrans requirements will remain the city's responsibility.
The city currently provides about $43,000 support annually to the airport from the General Fund and this level of support is expected to continue.
Sierra Pacific is owned by David Bowen, who has solicited the assistance of Willits pilot Mike Smith in the enterprise.
The council introduced two changes to the proposed agreement, andauthorized Willits City Manager Paul Cayler to negotiate the terms and bring back the final agreement for approval. The changes included a city review in five years and a requirement for Sierra Pacific to purchase the aviation gasoline inventory at the time of transfer.
The management contract requires Sierra Pacific to manage the airport day-to-day, including twice-daily inspections, billing and collecting rent, maintenance of the aircraft fuel system, providing basic pilot and aircraft support services, and to have someone available by phone or in person from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days per week.
Sierra Pacific will be responsible for maintenance of the hangars and buildings, tie-downs, security fencing and gates, runway and taxiway lights and controls, the precision approach instrumentation and wind cones. Sierra Pacific also will be responsible for utility costs.
The new manager has the future option to operate food and lodging facilities and a rental car franchise at the location. The manager also can expand existing services and add new hangars or other airport facilities, if approved in advance by the city.
Cayler admitted the Willits airport community was not in universal support of the change, citing the falloff of volunteer hours and contributions to the airport since the city began to seriously consider the change.
The Airport Commission voted in favor of the proposal by 3-1, with one commissioner recusing himself from the vote, clearing the way for the agreement to be voted on by the city council.
The council acknowledged the contributions of volunteers past and present credited with keeping Ells Field viable through the years. Several members of the council admitted the city has done little in recent years to market or expand services at the airport or do more than maintain the status quo, and that it was time to try a new direction.
There is one major airport maintenance expense the city is currently evaluating: the stabilization of the north end of one runway. Cayler expects the city will receive a grant from the FAA and CalTrans to fix this. A smaller related $117,000 project to seal cracks in the tarmac is underway. It is being funded mostly by the FAA and CalTrans, with the city on tap for only about $3,000 of the total cost.
When asked what would happen if the city chose to shut down the airport rather than continue to support it with the general fund, the council was told the city would have to refund all prior FAA and CalTrans grants provided over the past 20 years.