They offered cookies, coffee and soda, but the new San Diego Regional Airport Authority did little to offer any insight into its ongoing money spat with Lindbergh Field's outgoing overlord, the San Diego Port District.
In two weeks, the new Airport Authority is scheduled to take control of the airport-as well as future discussions about finding a new airport site. But if the authority's first official meeting Monday was any indication, much of the action will be happening behind closed doors.
After a brief swearing-in ceremony and a few platitudes, the board hopped into a closed session that stretched more than an hour. Following the secret session, the board offered no specifics on its discussions and adjourned the meeting shortly thereafter.
“Bang! It's done!” exclaimed the board's gavel-happy chairman, retired Air Force Col. Joe Craver after pounding the meeting to a close. Left unanswered, unfortunately, was the authority's standing with the Port District, which is pinching the purse strings on the new board's unveiling.
About the only thing learned by the smattering of the public who attended Monday's kickoff meeting was that the board will meet next on Jan. 9 and, after that, the third Thursday of every month.
Oh, and that board member and City Councilman Ralph Inzunza Jr. prefers a board retreat on Jan. 16 rather than Jan. 23, when he says he has “a whole bunch of Super Bowl events” to attend. Yes, this is one board with its eyes focused on the horizon, alright.
The board did vote unanimously to approve a memorandum of understanding with the Port District, the legal contract hammered out by 21 joint committees over 15 months that is supposed to lay out the plan to transfer what they refer to as San Diego International Airport-if our stubby, one-runway version can be called “international.” But we'll let sleeping marketeers lie.
The most vexing issue, however, is how much bling-bling the cash-soaked Port District will give up to the new Airport Authority. Negotiations are said to be going at a Zamboni's pace, never mind that the new authority's financial viability must be cemented by midnight Dec. 31, or the Federal Aviation Administration-the Vatican of airport authorities-won't issue an operating certificate. That could mean, at best, the port runs the airport in the interim or, worst case, an airport shutdown. That's right, no flights in or out.
So what's the holdup, moneywise? Well, to hear some tell it, you can roam right back to the now-termed-out state legislators who made the authority a reality-state Sen. Steve Peace and Assemblyman Howard Wayne. The law they drummed up apparently makes the land-transfer part clear, but not so when it comes to divvying up the port's cash-and-investment reserves, now estimated at $208 million. “They're great at pushing through legislation,” cracks one observer about the outta-office politicos, “but they probably can't balance their checkbooks.”
It takes much moola to run an airport, and the new guys privately feel they're being short-changed straight out of the gate. Airport authority officials figure they're entitled to half of the port's reserves, since the airport generates more than half of the Port District's revenues. Plus, they'll be taking on nearly $120 million in debt by acquiring the airport. For years, the port has chosen to borrow bucks to finance airport improvements while paying cash for non-airport projects.
But by press time, port officials had only offered a “financial package” valued at $125 million, including an unknown mix of cash, rent credits and interest-generating notes. That didn't sit well with the new board, which has formed a committee to pursue a resolution.
Publicly, both sides seem in agreement that a solution will be found soon, but it seems the port's on weaker footing. Says one port insider: “This place is awash in money! And arrogant as hell!”
Long-term, the new authority will have few, if any, money woes. Not only is the airport a cash cow, but the buzz has it that the new group already has an agreement with folks at the neighboring Marine Corps Recruit Depot about buying some land to expand taxiways-get ready for more planes overhead, Point Loma!-and is contemplating a 50-percent increase in terminal fees (paid by carriers but ultimately reflected in ticket prices). No doubt the weakened airline industry won't be tickled by that.
Chairman Craver, who noted that the board's real job is to find a new airport site and get it before voters by 2006, may have summed up his troops' intent best: “You expect a lot of us, and believe me you're going to get it!”
In the hamper... Stick a fork in the water bags-they're done. After the Coastal Commission last week objected to Alaska entrepreneur Ric Davidge's plan to tugboat big bags of fresh water from the Gualala and Albion rivers down to San Diego to quench our insatiable thirst, protest groups up north received even better news.
Davidge has officially withdrawn his plans, griping on the way out that “the politicos may have satisfied some of their constituents but still done nothing to advance the states [sic] knowledge of its publicly owned natural resources.”
No, we just learned that some communities know how to fight bad ideas.