Mather Airport purchase angers regional leaders

The Public Eye
The Public Eye

Sacramento County started work on an expansion project at Mather Airport before receiving an environmental review required under state law, angering elected officials in El Dorado County, Folsom and Sacramento County itself.

The county spent almost $800,000 on a system that helps pilots land in fog. The equipment is part of a $108 million plan to make the airport a “regional air cargo hub” by improving runways, taxiways and other features at the former U.S. Air Force base.

The decision to purchase the equipment in advance of the environmental review was made by former county airports director Hardy Acree and approved by the office of County Executive Brad Hudson, records show.

Shipping firm UPS, which operates at Mather, has pushed the county to make the improvements because of the cost of fog delays, according to correspondence between UPS and the county. County officials have also expressed an interest in having FedEx relocate from Sacramento International to Mather and think the improvements will help.

In a November 2012 letter to UPS, Ralph Blanchard of the Sacramento County Airports System said the county wants “UPS to be successful and grow at Mather and to that end we will do everything in our power to facilitate that outcome by completing the installation of (the system) at the earliest possible date.”

Blanchard went on to encourage UPS to hire a lobbyist to build support for the project among supervisors and surrounding communities and overcoming “the political challenges that are still part of the equation.”

The purchase was made in 2012, a year before the environmental review was scheduled for completion. That review has yet to be completed because an earlier version contained outdated projections, and a new version is expected to go to the Board of Supervisors for approval later this year.

The purchase, made public only recently, has inflamed critics of the plan to expand cargo operations at Mather, particularly those representing Highway 50 suburbs over which cargo traffic often flies.

The airport already receives about as many noise complaints as the county’s three others – Executive, International and Franklin Field – combined. Expansion critics say the equipment purchase only contributes to the impression the county will not conduct a fair environmental assessment, which they say is further borne out by a draft assessment that finds the Mather project will not significantly add to plane noise.

The county violated the California Environmental Quality Act because the purchase shows it has committed to the project before an environmental review can determine its potential impacts, a law firm representing Folsom said in a letter to the county last month. The law firm discovered the equipment purchase through a Public Records Act request. Folsom provided the records to The Sacramento Bee.

Current Director of Airports John Wheat defends the past handling of the Mather project, saying the county can move the equipment to Sacramento International if the Board of Supervisors does not approve its use at Mather.

Officials in El Dorado County and Folsom say they are not persuaded.

“It certainly raises questions about whether they are being sneaky, deceitful and underhanded,” said Folsom Mayor Kerri Howell. “There’s an assumption that not only is the (environmental review) going to be approved, but the expansion is going to be approved.”

Folsom submitted its letter, written by the firm Shute, Mihaly and Weinberger, in response to Sacramento County’s draft environmental review. The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors adopted Folsom’s findings in its own highly critical reply to Sacramento County.

“The project and its end result of creating a major cargo hub for Mather is merely a scheme to attract income for Sacramento County government at the expense of Folsom and El Dorado County residents,” the El Dorado County letter states.

Sacramento County Supervisor Roberta MacGlashan, whose district includes Folsom, said she was dismayed to learn about the equipment purchase from officials in Folsom and not the county. She said she was further troubled to learn that county directors can bypass the Board of Supervisors for purchases that don’t involve the normal bidding process.

“I was appalled,” said MacGlashan, the lone board member to oppose the Mather expansion. “It’s not the way the county should do business because it is not transparent and it does not foster good county-city relations.”

Airport officials say only one contractor makes a system approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. As a result, the contract was not awarded through competitive bidding and did not need approval from supervisors, they said.

Wheat said the equipment purchase does not bind supervisors to approval of the environmental review. While he said he could not comment on specifics about the review until its completion, he insisted the county can be fair. The Board of Supervisors will be asked to approve the environmental review, but Folsom or El Dorado County could challenge the decision in court.

Folsom’s comment letter questions the draft of the environmental review, which anticipates that the project will add a less than significant amount of noise. The report underestimates the amount of additional Mather traffic and fails to acknowledge what one airports official said about Mather: “the best opportunity that we have to provide ‘immediate’ and essentially limitless air cargo capability to the region,” according to the Folsom letter.

Wheat said Mather opponents have overstated the possibility for growth, in part because the county was once more optimistic about the possibilities. Rising fuel costs have led to far more cargo being transported by ground, and air traffic isn’t likely to grow by more than 2 percent a year at Mather, he said.