Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Ike Wants Police Helicopters; Council Has Questions

The County Executive and the Police Department are requesting funding for a new police helicopter program. The police want to apply for $248,894 in federal grant money and are asking the County Council for $279,890 in local funding to acquire two helicopters. The police have not detailed the annual operating costs, but council staff believes they could account for 1-2% of the total police budget. Under the Fiscal Year 2010 budget, that would amount to $2.5-4.9 million per year. Council President Phil Andrews sent a long list of questions to the Executive Branch that he would like answered by Thursday which we reproduce below.

But here are our questions. First, when we cannot afford to give the police officers raises, how can we afford helicopters? Second, why did the Executive Branch wait until after the Fiscal Year 2010 budget was set in May to send in this request? Third, how does this impact next year's expected $350 million budget deficit? And fourth, what is our state delegation supposed to say when they make a case for state aid to Montgomery in Annapolis?

Montgomery County Council
Rockville, Maryland
Office of the Council President

July 13, 2009

To: Tim Firestine, Chief Administrative Officer
J. Thomas Manger, Chief, Montgomery County Police Department
From: Phil Andrews, Council President
Subject: Proposal for Montgomery County Police Department Helicopter Unit

The Council has received notice from the Police Department of the County’s intent to apply for $248,894 in Federal funds to assist in funding an aviation helicopter unit for the Montgomery County Police Department. The grant application indicates that $279,890 in costs will be funded with non-Federal funds, which the Council understands from Council staff to be the County’s Drug Enforcement Forfeiture Fund (DEFF).

As the Council has not received any written information, other than this grant application, or a briefing on the proposed helicopter unit, there are many questions about the cost of the proposal, its benefits to the County, and how it ranks in the Executive’s funding priorities. The Executive and Council have continually placed a priority on funding for public safety, even in this current fiscal crisis. However, it is not clear what the long-term annual costs of this proposal are and how they will be paid for once the grant and DEFF monies are spent.

Please provide to the Council by noon on Thursday, July 16 a written overview of the current proposal and a five-year cost estimate. I recognize that this proposal is different from the proposal forwarded to the Council in 2001 by then Chief Moose. However, I will note that the 2001 proposal said that, “The average helicopter budget for an existing program is around 1% - 2% of the total law enforcement budget.” This memo will also reference some other information from that proposal.

Please include as a part of your response answers to the following questions:

1. What are the benefits to the County from having its own police helicopter unit and why is it needed now?

2. Please confirm that the County is expecting to acquire two helicopters. If not, what is the expected size of the helicopter unit?

3. Where will the helicopters be housed? What is the annual cost associated with any lease or facility upgrades?

4. After the initial refurbishment, what is the expected annual cost for maintenance including parts and labor?

5. How many hours is the Department expecting the units will be in service and how many miles are they expected to fly in a year? What are the expected fuel costs for the annual mileage?

6. How will the County provide insurance for this program and what is the expected annual cost? The information provided in 2001 included a preliminary response from Risk Management that the County Attorney’s Office felt the County could not self-insure for the full amount of the aircraft and that supplemental insurance would be needed. A preliminary estimate, not based in a detailed application, was that supplemental insurance might cost $50,000 per year.

7. How many staff will be assigned to the unit? In 2001 the staff was proposed as one supervisor, five pilots, and five observers (two officers would be in the aircraft). It was felt that pilots should be police officers rather than civilians. If a lower number of staff is now being recommended, will the helicopter be ready for dispatch 24-hours a day? If not, what will be the impact on helicopter response time?

8. What divisions will police officers assigned to the helicopter unit be reassigned from and how will their current assignments be filled?

9. Will the Department have memoranda of understanding with municipal, Park, or State police regarding when the County will respond to requests from these agencies?

10. What is the expected useful life of the helicopters that are being acquired? Does the Executive branch propose establishing any type of sinking fund or internal service fund account in motorpool for a planned replacement?

11. Please confirm that the DEFF is the source for the non-Federal funds. If not, what is the source of funding?

12. What is the current balance in the DEFF? While the Council recognizes that there are detailed items funded by DEFF that should not be publicly disclosed, what were total expenditures from the fund in FY08 and FY09, and what were the major categories for those expenses?

13. What are the total planned expenditures from the DEFF for FY10, and what are the major categories for expenditures in the coming year?

14. Assuming the DEFF is the source of funds, why is the creation of a helicopter unit a higher priority than other items that might have been funded with DEFF monies, such as additional in-car video cameras?

15. If as Council staff understands, it is expected that the DEFF will cover the non-Federal costs in FY10 and FY11, what source of funding is expected to be used for the ongoing costs beginning in FY12?

The Council is very interested in understanding the benefits of establishing a helicopter unit, but we must also make a decision regarding the long-term costs. As you know, the Executive and Council have reduced police officer positions, eliminated a recruit class, and considered having to limit public access to at least two police stations. In addition, some of the other grants that already been applied for, such as the crime lab expansion and COPS hiring grant, will have future fiscal impacts. The State will likely be sending additional reductions to the counties. It would be unfortunate if the County established this new unit only to find that it is not sustainable after the grant period ends.

cc: Councilmembers
Joe Beach, Director, Office of Management and Budget