SHERIDAN — Sheridan County commissioners expressed frustration with the city of Sheridan during a regular meeting Tuesday for its inability to come to a funding agreement with the county regarding local air service.
The commissioners took action to remove a contingency from Sheridan County’s memorandum of understanding with the Wyoming Department of Transportation, which allowed the county to move forward without the city’s participation.
WYDOT’s Aeronautics Commission is scheduled to vote on approving the county’s MOU Thursday, which would finalize SkyWest Airlines as the Sheridan County Airport’s commercial air service provider starting next year.
County Administrative Director Renee Obermueller, who also serves as the administrator of the Sheridan and Johnson counties Critical Air Service Team, said while she still expects the city and county to reach an agreement, the county cannot afford a delay.
“We’re at a critical time now — we’ve got to start getting some schedules loaded so we can start selling this service and pay for it,” Obermueller said. “The longer we stall, the more detriment there’s going to be to that funding side of it.”
The original memorandum of understanding between Sheridan County and WYDOT was contingent on the county negotiating a cooperative funding agreement with the city of Sheridan, which was similar to past air service funding agreements between the city and the county.
“It’s perplexing to me, given that we’re at the 24th hour and now we’re trying to negotiate something that seems very simple,” Obermueller said.
The two sides can still reach an agreement with the city agreeing to cooperative funding through an MOU with Sheridan County, but that will require the entities to sort out how they will cooperate on managing the service.
Obermueller explained that the county had to accept having less control over local air service operations when it agreed to join the state’s Commercial Air Service Improvement Plan.
Sheridan County had a direct contract with Denver Air Connection — which gave it the power to negotiate aspects of the service like ticket pricing, flight schedules and revenue management practices — and the state subsidized that contract through its discontinued Air Service Enhancement Program.
With the new service, WYDOT will hold the contract with SkyWest and the local governments of the communities participating in the improvement plan commission air service through MOUs with WYDOT. That arrangement gives the state agency more say in how the local service will operate.
“After conversations with the city, it appears that they don’t feel like they are getting equal representation in the contract with the state,” Obermueller said. “I think there are probably some great misunderstandings because we really don’t have a lot of say either.”
She added that while she understands the city’s desire to have agency in determining how the local service operates, some of its demands — like serving as a co-sponsor of SkyWest with the county — are incompatible with the county’s agreement with WYDOT.
Three other communities have agreed to participate in the state’s improvement plan, all of which have multiple funding partners and none of those partners have the influence the city is asking for, Obermueller said.
Commission Chairman Tom Ringley asked Obermueller whether the county could sustain the agreement with SkyWest alone if it cannot come to terms with the city. Obermueller said going it alone would require the county to draw on some of its reserve funding, but would ultimately be feasible.
“All indications are with having this (partnership with SkyWest), we are going to increase our ridership and have a really good chance of becoming self sufficient,” Obermueller said. “Personally, I’m not real concerned.”
During a Sheridan City Council meeting Monday, council tabled voting on the funding agreement between the city and the county to allow more time for negotiations. Councilors indicated they believed the city needed more say in operating the service.
“We just need to somehow have it that we have input that is weighed and has merit in the discussion,” Councilor Patrick Henderson said during the Monday meeting.
Both city and county officials have said they believe the two entities will reach an agreement, but the commissioners made it clear they believe that agreement should already be in place Tuesday.
“There seems to be some mistrust here and that really bothers me,” Commissioner Terry Cram said. “…I can’t think of anything we could possibly do that would be detrimental to the city.”
Commissioner Mike Nickel, Commissioner Nick Siddle and Ringley said they believe local air service is crucial to the continued development of Sheridan County and will work to ensure it is maintained.
“The bottom line is, Sheridan County is committed to having air service with or without the city as a funding partner,” Ringley said.