Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

Two public airports in Tuolumne County are not operating in the black, but county officials say there is an ongoing attempt to change that.

The Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors saw a presentation on Tuesday of a long-term business plan for the small airports at Columbia and Pine Mountain Lake. Both are county-owned, and neither is currently generating the amount of revenue it takes to operate them.

The 2011-12 county budget showed the Columbia airport lost $69,532 - generating $362,341 in revenue and $431,873 in expenses. At Pine Mountain Lake, the airport cost $87,546 to operate and only generated $53,972 according to the same budget numbers.

Daniel Richardson, a deputy county administrator, said the "airports fund" is operated as an "enterprise fund," meaning it is supposed to be self-supporting.

"That has not been the case for most of the years," Richardson said.

He said the Pine Mountain Lake airport's earning potential is limited by the "development opportunities" near the airport and some federal regulations. A budget projection through 2018 shows that airport still operating at a negative balance of $30,550.

But the Columbia facility has potential to break even within three years and start earning enough down the line to cover the expenses of the airports fund, according to projections. Plans are in place to increase marketing of airport events and to try and rent more hangars and the on-site armory. There is also a federally funded project in the works to construct a water line at Columbia to improve development opportunities, he said.

"Revenues should surpass expenses next fiscal year," he said.

There is no requirement to keep either airport open. But Richardson said both airports are important because they provide a crucial public safety and business role for residents inside and outside of the county.

"Common sense tells us they're a necessity for our area," he said.

The Columbia Airport offers a 4,600-foot paved runway and a 2,600-foot grass runway, and is used as an air attack base for regional firefighting efforts. It is the base for about 120 fixed-wing planes and five helicopters, boasting 77 single-engine hangars, five executive hangars, four commercial hangars and more than 100 tie-downs.

The smaller Pine Mountain Lake Airport is the only airport located on the south side of the Tuolumne River Canyon along the busy Highway 120 corridor. It has a paved, 3,600-foot runway and is home to 70 aircraft.

Cal Fire uses it as a helicopter base when there is a fire in the south county, and it is regularly used for air medical transport.