Blanding Council discusses economic impact of the Blanding Airport and approves maps

The impact of the city airport, the sale of raw water, and county commission districts were all part of the December 14 meeting of the Blanding City Council.

Members of the Blanding City Council reviewed a state-commissioned study of all public airports in Utah.

The report is that the Blanding airport helps create 81 jobs in Utah, with $3.9 million in annual payroll and $7.2 million in annual spending, for a total of $11.1 million in annual economic activity.

Blanding City Community Development Director Bret Hosler shared that the Blanding Airport is the seventh most impactful airport in Utah for local economic input.

Hosler shared, “We knew it was pretty good but didn’t know it was quite as good as this report paints it.”

Hosler notes that a large part of the economic impact to the airport is linked to Eagle Air Med, a medical flight company that transports medical patients to larger medical hubs in the Four Corners area.

Eagle Air Med has been based out of Blanding since its inception in 1981. The company now operates under the arm of Guardian Flight.

“If we didn’t have Guardian Flight down there as a private business, the airport numbers would be drastically different,” Hosler said.

The state report also suggests spending $8.5 million over the next 10 years in maintenance and improvements to the airport, averaging $852,310 per year.

With $11.1 million in annual economic activity, the reported benefit from the airport exceeds its needs.

Many rural airport projects are largely funded by the Federal Aviation Administration, with states and municipalities contributing much smaller portions of cost for projects recommended by the FAA.

The report recommends improvements to primary runway dimensions and taxiway layout, as well as the primary runway strength.

Other recommendations from the report include improving aircraft maintenance services and to the terminal and administration building.

Councilmember KD Perkins recommended the city use space at the main building for informational displays similar to the visitor center. Perkins also suggested the city also consider prioritizing the rental vehicles available at the airport.

Councilmember Cheryl Bowers said when she previously worked for Eagle Air Med, the company seriously considered moving headquarters to Flagstaff, AZ to more easily fill the needed mechanic jobs.

Bowers said Eagle Air Med founder Jon Hunt changed his mind due to his relationship with the city.

“It’s because of the relationships he built with [Bret Hosler] specifically, with the agreements that we had for that building...and the way the city had treated the business over the years, that he decided to stay, which is why it’s still here today,” said Bowers.

The council also discussed the sale of raw water to interested companies ahead of the start of the water use year in April 2022. 

Raw water is untreated, meaning minerals and bacteria are not removed from the water. Raw water is unsafe to drink but has use for commercial purposes including construction and mining.

Raw water is sold at a lower cost than drinking water, as it is untreated. Sonderegger Inc. inquired about purchasing raw water for possible operations at a location south of Shirttail Corner just off Highway 191.

Blanding City did not approve the sale of raw water to Sonderegger Inc. at the meeting as they are finalizing a new policy related to the sale of raw water.

The town began looking closer at historic practices at the conclusion of the water year in September. Historically, the city has sold raw water to Energy Fuels and the White Mesa Mill at a cost of $75 per acre-foot. 

The city reports the mill used a similar amount of water in 2021 as it did in 2020, which was 48.9 million gallons of raw water, at a cost of $11,250.

While the rate is based on an ongoing agreement, in September, City Manager David Johnson suggested the city create a policy for raw water sales.

The policy will establish a consistent price for anyone interested in purchasing raw water. 

The policy would also likely introduce a tiered structure of rates based on drought conditions. 

Currently, in Blanding as well as in Monticello, the city council chooses from four colored tiers in the spring to set the rate for water, based on the amount available.

The system allows residents to purchase water at a low cost during wet years. During years of drought, the city will increase the rate that residents pay for water in order to ration available water and promote conservation.

While the tier system exists for water uses in town, it is not included for the sale of raw water.

The city reports that Energy Fuels has cooperated with the city on the matter, as the company believes it will help them plan for the future.

Johnson said while these companies could use a well, it’s been more cost-effective to buy from the city.

“It’s a business-savvy move for them,” said Johnson. “We need to ask the question in the way our policy is structured: Is it a business-savvy move for us?

“Because we have a responsibility to our taxpayers to be smart with our dollars and smart with our water.”

Johnson says developing the policy is a priority for the early part of 2022. The policy will likely be in place before April, which is the start of the water use year.

The council also approved a letter from Mayor Joe B. Lyman stating their preferences for redistricting of the county commission.

The letter thanked the commission for developing two-county redistricting map options that did not divide the greater Blanding area into three districts.

The current county commission districts were implemented in 2018 under the direction of a federal judge following a lawsuit by the Navajo Nation against the county.

The districts divide the City of Blanding into two districts, with areas located outside of city limits – but part of the greater Blanding area – falling into a third district.

The letter, approved by the council, stated the preferred redistricting map as option D, which would keep Blanding whole by having two other districts surrounding the Blanding district on the east and west sides.

The letter gave a secondary recommendation of map Option C, which would split the Blanding community into two different districts.

The two maps were developed by redistricting expert Bill Cooper, who was hired by San Juan County. Cooper has been skeptical that either of the two maps, if approved, would keep the county out of a future court battle.

Mayor Lyman recognized that the two options would likely not be chosen but expressed appreciation that the maps were developed.

At the meeting, the council also received word of the application for and receiving of different grants.

The city received a $38,900 grant for a planned Water Master Plan. The grant was awarded by the Utah Division of Drinking Water.

The council also received a $25,000 grant for needed work to preserve the Swallows Nest. The historic structure was built in 1925 by settler Albert R. Lyman. 

Lyman used the small building as a solitary workplace. It is located near the intersection of Center Street and 200 East near the Blanding Visitor Center.

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