Santa Barbara County supervisors coughed up a collective fur ball this Tuesday when they were notified that the bill to fix one of the Sheriff’s department’s five helicopters weighed in more than twice what was originally estimated. The final repair invoice for Helicopter 308 was $320,000; the initial estimate had been $143,000. Although there was enough money in the helicopter repair fund that the supervisors had approved earlier this summer, the expenditure will drain most of what’s left in the account with 10 months still left in the fiscal year.
None of the supervisors were happy with the news, but Peter Adam peppered the sheriff’s chief fiscal officer Douglas Martin with such a barrage of critical questions that Sheriff Bill Brown felt compelled to come to Martin’s rescue. What would happen if the county refused to pay the bill, Adam asked; and wasn’t it a “charade” if the supervisors were expected to merely “rubber stamp” every cost overrun any county department head submitted for payment?
Looking stern and a bit peeved, Brown stated helicopters are inherently expensive to maintain, but that they provide an essential service in times of fire or when emergency rescues are needed. He and Martin expressed surprise of their own that the bill was so high and that the repairs took so long; the “bird” — as Martin referred to it — was in the shop for six months. Compounding matters, the departmental maintenance technician who would normally have done much of the work was out on leave due to a family tragedy. As a result, the repairs were farmed out to a private company in Van Nuys.
Adam — who is supporting Brown’s opponent in next year’s sheriff’s election, Sergeant Sandra Brown — questioned whether the department really needed five helicopters. “Could we get by with less?” he demanded. Brown explained that one of the helicopters is specially equipped with twin engines, allowing it to fly missions in the Santa Barbara Channel. Two are needed for search and rescue and firefighting functions, he explained, but they each need backups because helicopters are grounded for repairs every 100 hours they’re in the air.
With law enforcement officers taken off the streets of Santa Maria to escort prisoners to the County Jail, Adam questioned whether the department could afford a specialty helicopter capable of island rescues. Brown said the helicopter budget “has no bearing on what we’re doing in Santa Maria.” When Adam demanded just how many such rescues had actually been done with the Sheriff’s department fleet, Supervisor Salud Carbajal — chairing the meeting — cut him off. That line of inquiry, Carbajal insisted, was more appropriate for a longer — and later — discussion on how the Sheriff’s fleet is actually deployed. Whether that meeting ever takes place has yet to be seen.
Adam also expressed concern about price “creep.” Supervisor Doreen Farr chimed in, “It’s more than a creep,” she said, suggesting the supervisors will have to choose between what they want and what they can afford. She noted with some alarm that on occasion only one of the department’s five “birds” have been airworthy. Supervisor Steve Lavagnino acknowledged helicopters provided a vital service, but he repeatedly asked why the supervisors weren’t notified sooner that the repair bill for Copter 308 had mushroomed so dramatically. “Were we on break?” he asked more than once. Finance officer Martin said he kept county executive Chandra Wallar apprised at all times. “It was as much as a surprise to us as it was to everyone else,” he said.