Friday, September 23, 2016

Durango City Council and La Plata County consider airport oversight changes

The Durango-La Plata County Airport director could answer directly to La Plata County or an airport authority, instead of the city, as soon as next year.

For months the Durango City Council and the La Plata County Commissioners have discussed a change in day-to-day oversight at meetings.

The county would take on the debt and collect the property taxes if voters approve money for a new terminal in November, and that helped start discussions, county spokeswoman Megan Graham said.

“It’s their responsibility to be more engaged in the management,” she said of the county.

A logical time for transfer would be Jan. 1, City Manager Ron LeBlanc said this week. But that could be delayed because some elected officials want to wait until after the election to make a decision.

“Really the most important thing is to get the vote passed and then we can get the structure figured out,” Durango Mayor Christina Rinderle said.

The boards will discuss the issue again in early October.

The airport director and staff employees are city employees, but the City Council and county commission have a say in major airport decisions.

A shift in oversight would transfer administrative management functions such as payroll, benefits and human resources to an authority or the county, although the money would come from airport operations.

Under an authority, the airport director would answer to one board instead of two.

“I think it would be a superior management structure,” Councilor Dick White said.

An airport authority could not collect taxes but it could help balance the governance between the county and the city, which co-own the airport, White said.

If an airport authority was formed, city councilors and county commissioners could be on the board charged with overseeing airport finances and the director, and that might simplify the oversight structure, he said.

Even though both the City Council and county commission approve major airport decisions, the airport director is on the city’s staff. If governance shifted to the county, the director would be on county staff.

“One of the owners has an unequal role,” White said.

The shift to an authority might also solve what some perceive as an awkward structure of the Durango-La Plata County Airport Commission, an advisory group.

It is the only city board with a city councilor and a county commissioner who are voting members, said Sherri Dugdale, assistant to the city manager. The board advises the director and sends recommendations to the council and commission.

Normally, elected officials are not involved as voting members in the process of advising department head, who answer to the city manager and the city manager answers to the council. So the structure on the advisory board crosses a line of communication in the city, White said.

“That’s an awkwardness of the structure I think we all recognize,” White said.

Elected officials could also transfer operations to the county.

It’s a change that seems to make intuitive sense, Commissioner Julie Westendorff said.

“I’ve had constituents ask why the county doesn’t run the airport, since the airport is in the county,” she said.

But she wants to make sure the options are explored before making a decision.

Airport operations are self sustaining – including all of the administrative overhead – so the change would not put pressure the county’s budget.

“The airport has always paid its way and I expect that to continue,” Westendorff said.

The last change in airport governance was in 2003 when the city took over the airport operations and maintenance.

Previously, the county managed operations and the city was in charge of capital, such as the building and equipment.


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