Despite concerns over spending priorities, Riverside County supervisors Tuesday granted Sheriff Chad Bianco’s request to acquire a helicopter for the sheriff’s aviation unit, joining the existing fleet of five patrol choppers.
“This helicopter is capable of high elevation flying … and can fly a team of nine, including the pilot and copilot,” Bianco told the Board of Supervisors. “It will allow us to perform rescues in the mountains and perform tactical rescues, if needed. Every other agency has a helicopter capable of these kinds of things.”
Bianco characterized the twin-engine chopper as an enlarged version of the Airbus Astar AS350s currently in the sheriff’s fleet, but which he complained come with inherent limitations, including only being able to carry at most five people.
Bianco proposed using the sheriff’s department’s remaining reserve from the current fiscal year — $11.5 million — to buy the aircraft and pay for the various equipment installation services that will be required following acquisition.
However, coming on the heels of budget hearings in which the county Executive Office called for disciplined, prudent spending decisions aimed at preserving a financial cushion to absorb unanticipated costs, several board members questioned the need to exhaust funds that might otherwise go back into contingency accounts, or might alternately be spent on swelling the sheriff’s ranks.
“We don’t have the deputies we need. There’s a surplus there, but we don’t have the deputies we need,” Supervisor Karen Spiegel said. “That to me is more important than a helicopter.”
Bianco replied that the department is steeped in a “massive hiring campaign” for which money has already been appropriated, and the funds for the aircraft are unrelated.
Supervisor Jeff Hewitt stressed the need to weigh the purchase against existing priorities, including ballooning public safety pension obligations and capital outlays, one of which is the John J. Benoit Detention Center in Indio, slated to become operational at year’s end.
“There are things we can and can’t do at this point priority-wise,” Hewitt said. “I would hope that you would be motivated to be as efficient as possible with taxpayers’ money.”
Supervisor Chuck Washington supported Bianco’s proposal, saying the sheriff should have the aircraft he needs to “run the department more efficiently.”
County CEO George Johnson advocated that the board not greenlight the use of $11.5 million that could pad reserves, but instead allow the Executive Office to obtain a bank loan at a 2 percent annual percentage rate to procure the helicopter.
Johnson estimated that with financing in place, the total cost to the county would be $13 million over 10 years — with all of that expense covered by the general fund.
The board unanimously agreed to the financing approach.
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