Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Leggett Replies to Andrews on Helicopters

County Executive Ike Leggett replied to Council President Phil Andrews’ memo on his intended acquisition of two donated police helicopters today.

In his response, the County Executive notes “the first two years of the program are mainly without cost to taxpayers” and that the program can be canceled thereafter, discusses the benefits of helicopters in a jurisdiction with a low number of officers relative to the population and makes the case that they will be especially useful in searches for missing persons. He states that Fairfax, Prince George’s, Howard, Anne Arundel, and Baltimore Counties, Baltimore City, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Park Police have aviation units. And he does not cede any ground on fiscal conservatism, reminding the Council President that passage of the ambulance fee – which Phil Andrews opposed – could have raised tens of millions of dollars that would have been available to fund needed services.

No, folks, Ike Leggett is not backing down. Following is the text of his reply.

September 1, 2009

TO: Phil Andrews, President, Montgomery County Council
FROM: Isiah Leggett, County Executive

SUBJECT: Donated Helicopter Evaluation

I received your memorandum of August 24, 2009, which laid out your concerns regarding the proposal to acquire donated helicopters for our police. Your memorandum raises a number of legitimate issues. At the same time, there are a number of overly broad and unsubstantiated statements that have been attributed to you in the press that I would like to first dispel.

According to these press reports, you claimed that this acquisition is nonessential and a waste of taxpayers’ funds.

Without a proper evaluation or data regarding this proposal, I am not clear how you have come to this conclusion. You are well aware that helicopter units have been in wide use for many years by many jurisdictions around the country as an important public safety tool. Indeed, this proposal before the Council will simply allow the County to implement a pilot program with minimal taxpayer funds. This will be followed by a thorough and complete evaluation by our well-respected CountyStat office. Only at that time will we determine if the use of substantial taxpayer funds is justified for a continuation of the program.

In addition, you attribute a cost of $4.5 million over the next five years to this program. As noted above, the first two years of the program are mainly without cost to taxpayers and any subsequent years would only be funded if the Council and I collectively believe, after a two-year evaluation period, the benefits of the program merit any future expenditures. It will cost virtually nothing over the next five years unless we determine it makes fiscal sense to continue this program past the two-year pilot phase.

I believe the facts will show that acquiring these donated helicopters for a two-year evaluation of their effectiveness in enhancing public safety could very well be in the best long term financial and public safety interests of our community. The discussion of the grant, should we receive it, will provide us with the appropriate opportunity for a full debate on all the issues.

First and foremost, the donation of these helicopters provides our County residents with a significant boost to public safety. While our police, like all County employees, are being asked to do more with less, this additional crime fighting tool is critical to their ability to keep up with the public safety needs of a growing population. Our police have to cover a large geographic area, while coping with significant traffic congestion and other challenges. Given the relative small size of our police force compared to our population, these helicopters provide us with a low-cost option for increasing our public safety abilities in the near term. We have all agreed that were it not for the difficult financial times in which we find ourselves, we would be adding significantly to our police force.

The helicopters will serve many needs within the County. They will be used to safely and effectively track fleeing criminals and manage crime scenes. The program will also enhance police officer safety and help us to manage traffic congestion and collisions. It can also be used now to support possible homeland security missions, deploy K-9 assets quickly and efficiently, and manage large events like the Fair and annual golf tournaments.

Additionally, the police currently are often hampered in their searches of missing persons – particularly children and cognitively-impaired elderly. Searches from the air clearly improve outcomes while freeing up resources. In just three days the week before last, the police received 15 reports of missing persons, one requiring a search which involved thirteen police units, diverting them from a variety of other calls for service. The ability to search with a helicopter would have precluded the need for at least some of those units to respond and freed them up for other critical police duties.

In 2008, at least three Montgomery County police units responded on each of 452 occasions involving intensive missing person searches. In addition, MCPD participated in 17 active Project Lifesaver searches. Typically these are time intensive searches involving K-9 units, patrol officers and trained Project Lifesaver Officers. Just one example was a search that occurred at night in 2008 conducted with the assistance of air support. An Alzheimer’s client was reported missing and located after 3.5 hours of searching performed by PGPD and MCPD and several K9 assets. The client was ultimately located using a helicopter. The program coordinator commented that without this assistance it is hard to know if the missing person would have been located in time.

Police Chief Tom Manger knows well the valuable force-multiplier this unit can represent. Fairfax County has an aviation unit, as does Prince George’s, Howard, Anne Arundel, and Baltimore County, as well as Baltimore City, the District of Columbia and U.S. Park Police The effectiveness of this resource is well recognized and utilized in these jurisdictions on a daily basis.

Today, Montgomery County must rely on the resources of other law enforcement agencies within the surrounding National Capitol Region to complete its mission when aircraft are required. Honoring these requests is at the discretion of the assisting agency which often has its own list of competing priorities. Just last week officers requested that Maryland State Police helicopter assist with the search for an armed bank robber in our community. Maryland State Police were unable to provide assistance because the helicopter was occupied performing its primary role, medical transport.

After the two-year evaluation period, this program, if successful, may be expanded to assume the current traffic monitoring mission which is currently assigned to the traffic plane. Currently County taxpayers fund a leased plane, contract pilots and a leased hangar. As our County continues to grow, our population and, unfortunately, our traffic congestion will increase. We must look to innovative and efficient methods in which to better deploy our resources to advance the good of our residents. This helicopter program could help.

Why this and why now?

• Donated helicopters. We have received two donated Army-surplus helicopters. Unlike the previous helicopter proposal from a decade before, there is no up-front purchase cost.

• Available funds outside the County budget for start-up costs. The federal grant we have applied for, along with funding from the Drug Forfeiture Fund, would cover outfitting the units and refresher training. For the first two years there would be next-to-no general fund expenditures. Therefore, your argument that this would “take away” from other police priorities in tight budget times is false. By the third year, when we have gauged the effectiveness of the effort, we can decide how it stacks up against other public safety needs.

• Available hangar space. As you know, the State has cut back and no longer stations any State helicopters at the Norwood hangar. This hangar offers a base of operations.

• Trained personnel. We already have trained and certified ex-military helicopter pilots within the ranks of the Montgomery County Police Department.

On behalf of the Council you have questioned the fiscal wisdom of taking these donated helicopters.

I am grateful for the Council’s recent efforts to help control expenditures and ensure the sustainability of our budgets. Since the first day that I became County Executive, I have raised concerns regarding the sustainability of past fiscal choices and acted to reverse unsustainable budget trends of past years. Over the past three years, my recommended budgets have closed shortfalls of nearly $1.2 billion. This year’s budget represents a significant decrease in expenditures and the lowest rate of growth in 18 years. The year before I took office, the then-Council approved a County government spending increase of 14 percent.

Under my administration, I have proposed difficult and significant expenditure reductions. I have also expressed my disappointment at times when the Council has chosen not to take all of the recommended expenditure reductions. On at least four separate occasions, I have proposed levels of budget reductions that have been rejected by the Council. Nor did the Council provide alternatives to reach the needed savings targets. And, of course, for the first time ever, the Council in 2008 actually passed a budget with a $16 million shortfall. The Board of Education and I filled this shortfall after the fact, at the Council’s request. Additionally, there are a number of revenue enhancements that I have proposed that the Council has either not approved or has significantly reduced. Often, Councilmembers cited as the reason for their refusal to accept my budget recommendations a belief that County revenue projections were overly conservative and/or that our fiscal challenges were not as difficult as I described. It is now clear that events have shown that I was quite accurate as to our need for further efforts by the Council to help resolve our budget challenges.

Had the Council approved my recommended expenditure reductions as well as my proposed revenue enhancements, we could have significantly mitigated the current financial problems by well over $100 million. For example, just your refusal to approve the Emergency Medical Services transport fee that would charge health insurance companies and Medicare and Medicaid for County ambulance transports – at no cost to County residents – has alone already cost us tens of millions of dollars since first proposed. Nearly all our neighboring jurisdictions are using these funds to improve services and save lives – with no adverse effects on residents. We should have done the same.

You may recall that, as a Councilmember, I opposed the purchase of helicopters to form an aviation unit. As County Executive I have continued to oppose previous suggestions that involved the purchase of helicopters.

The recommendation currently before you is a very different proposal. It uses donated helicopters, refitted and equipped with non-taxpayer funds. We have available hangar space and trained personnel already on staff to operate them. This proposal requires minimal investment for a two-year pilot program that could prove very advantageous in advancing public safety.

Given my concern for fiscal prudence, I would not have moved to accept these helicopters if I did not believe that they are in the best long-term interests of our community – both from a public safety and a financial perspective. I believe that these donated helicopters provide us with the unique opportunity to pilot this program with little or no financial risk to our taxpayers. The donated equipment, coupled with the grant and the funding from the DEF, means there will be minimal use of tax-supported dollars for this purpose.

It is rare that such an opportunity presents itself and it requires leadership to take that opportunity – especially in difficult financial times.

But, after many years in public service, I have learned that the best opportunities often present themselves at inopportune times. Sometimes, in order to move our community forward and position ourselves for the future, it is necessary to make an investment. This repeatedly has been the case in our County.

I am hopeful that you and your colleagues will see that while this program may at first blush appear to some to be put forward at the wrong time. In fact, it is exactly the right time for such a move. We have a unique opportunity to boost our public safety capacities at little cost and little risk to County taxpayers – and without competing for funds with other police priorities for the first two years of operations.

Once you take the financial issue off the table – at least until year three when we will be able to judge the program’s effectiveness before continuing – the issue becomes “Does this strengthen our Police Department?” Police Chief Tom Manger, who knows better than any of us the competing needs and specific challenges his officers face on the front lines each and every day says, “Yes, definitely.” I agree we should proceed. I urge you, as Council President and chair of the Council’s Public Safety Committee to take a fresh look at the facts.

Below are answers to the specific questions outlined in your memorandum.

1. Has the County taken possession of any surplus helicopters for use by the Police Department? If so, when did they arrive, where did they come from, and where are they being housed? How much was spent transporting these helicopters?

MCPD received military surplus helicopters from the Department of Defense on July 17, 2009. Two of the aircraft are currently undergoing diagnostic testing in Philadelphia, PA where the aircraft vendor is located. A third aircraft was accepted by MCPD and is currently housed in the Norwood Hangar.

The two aircraft in Philadelphia were previously in the possession of the Department of Natural Resources in Easton, Maryland. The helicopter housed in Norwood was previously assigned to Princess Anne County. MCPD does not intend to rehabilitate this aircraft, but rather use this aircraft for parts – many of which are valuable and in good condition.

Transfer of these surplus helicopters to MCPD has required approximately $3,500.

2. Has the Police Department assigned any personnel specifically to this effort? If so, how many positions/workyears are assigned and what is the monthly cost?

Currently, MCPD has assigned two police officers to work on this effort. Both officers are in a Light Duty status and would not be performing patrol duties if assigned elsewhere.

3. How much money do you plan to spend evaluating, repairing, or equipping these helicopters prior to the Council considering a request by you to appropriate grant funds if the County is awarded the grant you submitted? What will be the revenue source for any such expenditures?

The one-time expenditure necessary to rehabilitate the two aircraft has not yet been determined. It is estimated that up to $140,000 may be necessary to complete this work, but until the diagnostic is completed by the vendor, MCPD will not know what specifically will need to be replaced/repaired. The figure is an average cost to complete similar class helicopter refurbishment. The Department is currently in possession of a significant number of critical parts that will be used to offset repair costs. Funding for this rehabilitation would be covered under the pending federal grant.

The cost of equipment for the helicopters is estimated at $71,000 which includes communication gear.

4. Do you expect to authorize the use of County funding for training or equipping pilots for these helicopters prior to the Council considering a request by you to appropriate grant funds if the County is awarded the grant you submitted? If so, what is the expected cost and what is the revenue source for such expenditures?

The cost of equipping and training pilots is estimated at $30,000; however, MCPD is currently working with other allied aviation units in an effort to coordinate and partner with their training and thus realize significant savings. We don’t anticipate the use of any taxpayer monies for this purpose.