When federal officials announced in late August that Spokane County was getting about $148,000 for an Army surplus helicopter, the aircraft was described as a key to making Eastern Washington communities more secure.
“This funding will help provide the Spokane County Sheriff’s Department with the necessary tools and resources to do their job and keep our communities safe,” U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris said in a press release announcing the grant.
Less than two weeks later, local officials were calling that same surplus Bell Ranger helicopter a potential drain on the sheriff’s budget.
“We don’t need no stinking helicopter,” said Spokane County Commissioner Phil Harris.
County officials are planning to keep the money from the U.S. Justice Department, saying it’s needed to offset the costs of fixing an aircraft that was in worse shape than they were told when the Sheriff’s Department decided to buy it last year.
But the starkly differing views of the same helicopter in such a short period of time may have county residents – and taxpayers around the country – wondering: Why would county officials ask for money for something they don’t want? And why would the federal government give it to them?
The simple answer is that during the months between the asking and the giving, the cost and usefulness of the helicopter have come under fire at the Sheriff’s Department, but neither McMorris nor the Justice Department knew of the brewing controversy.
When the county applied for that grant for the Bureau of Justice Assistance in late 2005, the sheriff at the time, Mark Sterk, wanted the helicopter. Some of his command staff thought they had found a good deal on a surplus military aircraft that could be used by sheriff’s deputies and other law enforcement agencies for search and rescue and drug enforcement operations. It might even be rented by television stations for aerial shots of Bloomsday, they suggested.
But repairing the helicopter took more time and money than expected, and when Sterk retired in March the aircraft was still in the shop.
His successor, Ozzie Knezovich, wasn’t part of Sterk’s command staff and said he didn’t know very much about the helicopter proposal when he was appointed to the job.
“There were people within the department that told the former sheriff, ‘Bad idea,’ ” he said.
Spokane Valley police Chief Cal Walker, who was Sterk’s choice for his replacement and is running against Knezovich in next Tuesday’s GOP primary, said he wasn’t heavily involved in discussions about the helicopter either.
“It was a dream of Mark’s,” Walker said. “As reported, originally (the helicopter) was a great deal. But it wasn’t the piece of equipment it was purported to be.”
Despite Knezovich’s misgivings, he was quoted in McMorris’ announcement as being pleased the Justice Department “recognizes the value of a law enforcement helicopter program in Eastern Washington.”
Those words actually came from the department’s public information officer, Knezovich said, but he is happy to have the money – because it fills a hole in the budget the helicopter is digging.
“At this point I don’t plan on applying for any more grants until we know it’s a viable project,” he said.
A McMorris aide said the congresswoman got a courtesy notice from the Justice Department that the grant was being awarded to Spokane County so she could make the announcement, but she wasn’t involved in the decision to give the money. It’s different from an “earmark,” an amount of money put specifically into a department’s budget by Congress to be spent a certain way.
“We generally encourage people to apply for grants if they can,” spokeswoman Jill Strait said. “We typically don’t get involved in the process. We just get announcement notifications.”
It’s unusual for a project that receives a grant to come under criticism, Strait said. But that might point out the department needs to do a better job of checking on programs before the grants are awarded, she added.