Helicopter decision remains in midair after county supervisors talk budget

By: Jim Ruffalo Journal Correspondent
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Faced with the loss of funds to purchase a new helicopter, Placer County Sheriff Ed Bonner wound up with enough time to fly away and make the proposal on another day. The Placer County Board of Supervisors discussed the county Executive Office’s budget update Tuesday, which included debating the helicopter purchase. The board had approved the purchase back in January 2007, but as was noted Tuesday, those were better economic times. Since that approval to purchase an estimated $4 million Aerostar Eurocopter, Placer County faces a predicted budget deficit of more than $18 million. Bonner did all he could to keep the project’s funding alive, including having people who earlier benefited from helicopter rescues speak up. North Auburn resident Donna Schwab, whose mother, a 90-year-old dementia patient who was also deaf, was found by a Placer County search-and-rescue helicopter after wandering away from her home in 2003. “Several times, walking volunteers and deputies walked by where she’d been in a blackberry thicket without seeing her,” she said. “It took the helicopter to find her and I’m eternally grateful.” Staff had presented three options for the board to consider: complete the contractual obligation but quickly sell the aircraft; buy it and store it until sufficient funds could be realized to outfit and operate it; or borrow money from the county’s general fund with any future departmental needs deferred until the loan was repaid. It turned out there was a fourth option hovering. Part of that option was predicated when the Sheriff’s Department confirmed that the Auburn United Indian Community had pledged to contribute $1 million to help fund the helicopter purchase. Fifth District Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery wanted to know if that was a bona fide offer, or as she put it, “Can they (the Tribe) be sued if the money” is not paid? She was told that the UAIC’s offer was for payments, which could include up to $175,000 in 2010, to help out a lease-option deal. Fourth District Supervisor Kirk Uhler tried to walk the board through such an option, but he and Second District Supervisor Robert Weygandt’s eventually proposed to have staff work on the issue for another meeting. Montgomery tried to get the board to limit the Sheriff’s Department in the number of so-called take-home vehicles, but failed to garner support from fellow supervisors. One reason her idea apparently fell short was County Counsel Tony LaBouf’s reference to a court decision — which originated from a Placer County case — in which an appellate court ruled that elected (constitutional) officers have the final say on how to spend their own budgets. The board decided to bring that issue back for future discussion. A series of unanimous votes saw the board give its blessing to consider already reported budget cuts, as well as approve labor related actions which include a 2.5 percent ceiling on November’s scheduled Cost Of Living Adjustment (COLA). Also approved was sending the total package of budget-cutting proposals to the Placer Public Employee Organization (PPEO) for its approval.