Resurrection sought for aviation unit

Aug. 20, 2009


Aug. 20--NEW PORT RICHEY -- Months after disbanding his agency's aviation unit, Pasco Sheriff Bob White has asked the county commission to fund it next year.

The change comes after the sheriff's office was awarded a $4.3 million grant from the federal government's stimulus package to put 24 more deputies on Pasco's streets for three years. When White submitted his budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, he asked commissioners to fund eight deputies. He has removed the request for those deputies and instead put back the aviation unit, which includes two pilots, a mechanic, four helicopters (one used for parts) and a Cessna airplane.

In a letter dated Tuesday to commission Chairman Jack Mariano, White asks that the commission amend his budget to include $232,000 for operating expenses associated with the aviation unit. That amount includes an $80,000 request to build a fuel farm, which White says will cut down the cost of buying jet fuel elsewhere, a savings of $1.09 a gallon, or approximately $21,600 annually, at current rates.

If the commission approves funding the unit, it also would have to set aside funds in the county budget to cover the $60,000 lease for the hangar. White suggested, however, that the county purchase a hangar for about $145,000 and build it with inmate labor on the central jail complex in Land O' Lakes.

It would pay for itself in less than three years, White said Wednesday.

White said the reason he disbanded the unit was that he was told to take a hard look at his budget and "cut it to the bone."

"Unfortunately, I have to make decisions I don't like," White said.

Cutting the aviation unit was one such decision, but the choice came down to "boots on the street" or eyes from the sky. If given that choice, he said, there was only one answer.

"I'm going to keep my deputies and let the helicopters go," he said.

White said the federal funding of 24 deputies gave him the chance to take money he originally wanted for the eight deputies and move it to the aviation unit.

"It is hands down a must-have," White said.

The helicopters, he said, are useful in trailing bank robbery suspects, following car pursuits, searching for missing children or Alzheimer's disease patients and doing proactive surveillance.

The plan was to give the choppers back to the federal government, from which the sheriff's office acquired them free from a military surplus grant many years ago. White already had begun the process by notifying the government and inventorying all the parts and equipment. If Pasco cedes the aircraft it is unlikely they would ever qualify for such a grant again.

"They're telling us we won't get them back," White said, "and if you think about it why would they give them back?"

There already has been interest in the helicopters.

"Right now, a lot of law-enforcement agencies are circling the airport and taking pictures trying to decide if they want them," White said.

Additionally, White asked the commission to amend his original proposed 2009-10 budget of $84.9 million with a $465,526 increase to reflect the health insurance increase the commission recently approved.

Reporter Lisa A. Davis can be reached at (727) 815-1083.