SLO Airport Should Fly Solo, County Grand Jury Suggests

June 8, 2007
Breaking off from county General Services would remove a layer of bureaucracy that could help the airport become more efficient, jurors say

Jun. 7--The county civil grand jury has suggested that San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport consider becoming independent to give it the flexibility it needs to deal with rapid changes in the aviation world.

The suggestion is hypothetical. The grand jury gives no examples of a specific operation that would work better under such independence.

But as the county grows, airport managers will have to decide how and when to handle increasing demand for air travel, such as expanding parking, security facilities and the passenger terminal or whether to add more gates.

"My interpretation is that the grand jury was speaking in general terms (and saying that) cost efficiencies, work flow, flexibility to adjust to dynamics in the aviation industry and anything to improve those efficiencies is worth a look," Airport Manager Klaasje Nairne wrote in an e-mail.

Nairne and General Services Director Duane Leib, whose department within the county government oversees the airport, say they are willing to discuss a different organization. But Leib adds it is premature to talk about breaking off the airport from the county.

The airport is one of five divisions of the county department known as General Services. Another of the five, the Parks Division, has been seeking independence as well.

While this might seem like esoteric bureaucratic infighting, it has real-world consequences, the grand jury noted.

Decisions made by airport officials affect the hundreds of thousands of passengers who fly in and out of San Luis Obispo each year. Those numbers are expected to swell.

Removing a layer of bureaucracy would allow airport managers to act more swiftly and without competition from other General Services divisions.

"The added layer of management could inhibit an airport's innovation and calculated risk-taking essential to succeed," the grand jury wrote.

Leib agreed. "We need to look at a new organizational structure to protect the future of the airport." He, Nairne, and others have had many discussions about it, he added.

Leib said he would present his own reorganization plan to the Board of Supervisors this year. It will, in Nairne's words, "recognize the importance of the airports as well as parks."

The grand jury is a panel of citizens who examine government operations and public policy issues, sometimes in response to complaints or highly publicized events.

Its recommendations are not binding, but the Board of Supervisors, County Administrator David Edge, Nairne and county Auditor-Controller Gere Sibbach must respond to the report within 60 days.

Assistant County Administrator Gail Wilcox said it is premature to comment on the report, but "as a general comment, if creating a new agency to oversee airport operations would provide benefits to the public or the local economy, we would be interested in exploring that."

Grand jurors stressed that San Luis Obispo's structure is unusual. Typically, the report states, airports are their own departments, reporting to the governing body, county administrator or independent authorities managed by a board that includes local officials.

They suggested that the airport manager report directly to the Board of Supervisors.

The grand jury recommended that county supervisors create a task force to "investigate the benefits and implications of creating an Airport Department or authority."

Leib said the idea of forming an airport authority --essentially an independent government agency --"has been discussed many times and may be the best model as a goal. The problem is timing because of upcoming major construction.

San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport is in the midst of a major expansion, with extended runways and a new terminal in the works. Last week the county tentatively agreed to loan the airport $9.25 million toward a parking garage.

Airports that are quasiindependent agencies of the county include Washoe County Airport Authority (Reno-Tahoe International), Arapahoe County Airport Authority (Centennial Airport) and San Diego Airport Authority (San Diego International Airport), Nairne wrote.

Local airport management received high marks from the grand jury for successfully running an operation that generates as much as $180 million a year to the county's economy.