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Helicopter funding uncertain

Pilot Dave Valenti tosses a tie-down line over the Spokane County Sheriff's Office chopper's rotor blade after landing Wednesday at Felts Field in Spokane.
 (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Pilot Dave Valenti tosses a tie-down line over the Spokane County Sheriff's Office chopper's rotor blade after landing Wednesday at Felts Field in Spokane. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

With just eight months of flying behind it, the future of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office helicopter program is already up in the air.

Having already invested $500,000 to make the ship mission-ready, and with their federal grant expiring at the end of March 2008, sheriff’s officials are now working to make sure the Air Support Unit stays aloft.

“It’s an outstanding program,” Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said. “Our challenge is to find a steady revenue for it.”

Air One, a military surplus 1970 Bell OH58, costs the county about $400 an hour to fly due to fuel, maintenance, personnel and hangar rental expenses, Capt. Russ Shane said. The goal is to fly the aircraft 10 hours a week. A second surplus helicopter is used only for training.

“I’d kind of like these things to be less expensive to fly,” said Shane, who handles personnel and training for the program. He and other coordinators are evaluating whether the helicopter is worth the expense.

At a Sept. 24 presentation to county commissioners, Knezovich proposed a $404,000 annual budget for the helicopter, he said. But the program could take a back seat to spending on personnel, new emergency communications and the return of the Crime Check reporting hotline.

“There’s a lot of items on our budget request,” Knezovich said, “and it’s a matter of prioritizing everything out.”

County Commissioner Todd Mielke said Knezovich has two options: He must make a reasonable funding proposal, which could include getting partial funding from other area agencies, or prove to the commissioners that the helicopter program is a high enough priority.

“I need explicit confirmation from law enforcement that this rises to the level that other programs get cut,” Mielke said.

The commissioners will decide by mid-December which parts of Knezovich’s budget request get financial backing. Right now, for the helicopter program, the commissioners are looking at that $404,000, how much federal funding will disappear and “what that leaves us with,” Mielke said.

“I believe it has high value, but that value comes at a cost,” he said of the program. “So we have to look at, with all the other issues, where do we get the biggest bang for our buck.”

The initial costs of refurbishing and equipping Air One made Mielke nervous, he said, but he’s more comfortable with the program now that he has seen maintenance schedules and has met with the crew and taken a look at the chopper down at Felts Field.

With nine volunteer pilots – four of whom are retired from the Los Angeles Police Department’s air support unit and two of whom work for Northwest MedStar, the area’s medical helicopter operation – the county’s getting quite a bargain, Mielke said.

The program has been touch-and-go since the helicopter started flying in March, when most mission time was spent on crew training. Though grounded for most of May due to maintenance, Air One’s flight time increased throughout the summer, according to Sheriff’s Office records.

The most recent available chopper logs are from September, when the crew saw much of the standard: calls on suspicious people, DUIs, traffic stops, surveillance, pursuits and two marijuana busts. Sometimes the crew flies training missions to learn flying tactics and new equipment.

However, it’s hard to know whether Air One has increased arrests in the region, Shane said.

“It’s like anything else – it depends on the containment or the circumstance or all different factors,” he said. “We don’t catch them all, but we’ll catch them again.”

The sheriff’s helicopter also helped search for Amy Wheelock, a 26-year-old who went missing Sept. 22 and was found dead a week later by a hunter. And it helped locate the bodies of a father-son climbing duo whose disappearance on a mountain climbing trip near Leavenworth in September sparked a regional rescue effort.

Often the chopper is called to locate a suspicious person or watch over a traffic stop or crash. By communicating with dispatch and ground units, the crew can direct officers and coordinate ground activity from high above.

“It’s really good for pursuits,” Knezovich said, “but it’s only good when it’s in the air.”

With volunteer pilots, flight time is scheduled around their availability. Steady helicopter patrols are a goal for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, but right now, money and scheduling make that nearly impossible, Shane said.

“When we call, they’re available,” he said of the pilots. “You couldn’t ask for a more wonderful group of people.”

Program officials are close to getting everybody cleared to operate the chopper at night, Shane said. Since the program first received cash from the federal government in October 2006, it’s been a yearlong venture to find the nine volunteer civilian pilots and six deputies to support the program.

All the pilots are trained in tactical flying, such as orbiting a crime scene or following a car, said Dave Valenti, the program’s chief pilot and co-owner of Inland Helicopters Inc. He said they are all capable of flying at night – they just have to be cleared by the Sheriff’s Office.

Valenti said having eyes in the sky helps relieve what he sees as a shortage of law enforcement officers on the ground. As the county population grows, so does the need for more police.

“This is a contribution to Spokane, if you can make a dent in the drug market,” for example, Valenti said. “This is not L.A., but the crime exists.”

A few of the former LAPD pilots were part of the effort former Sheriff Mark Sterk sparked five years ago to revive the county’s helicopter patrols, Shane said.

Knezovich continued the program after Sterk retired in March 2006, but Knezovich was concerned it would cost too much and detract from other public safety needs. The Sheriff’s Office had small chopper programs in the 1970s and ‘80s, but the remaining two aircraft were decommissioned in 1991, according to past reports in The Spokesman-Review.

Funding has always been a problem, and today’s helicopter program is no exception.

“We’ll do everything in our power to keep it in the air,” Knezovich said.

Commissioner Mielke has one idea: Because Air One is a regional asset, he said, he would like to see other area agencies help foot the bill. The region already has cooperatives such as the Inland Northwest Joint Terrorism Task Force and the Spokane Regional Drug Task Force.

“I would like to look at a similar model for this helicopter,” Mielke said.

“There seems to be a lot of interest in that,” he added, “but we haven’t really had a chance to find someone who has time to chase that down.”

Perhaps, he said, organizers could get Idaho law enforcement agencies in on the deal.

But right now, the cooperative is just an idea. Currently, Spokane County pays for the helicopter program, and there’s nothing officially on the table that resembles a joint funding system.