<b>PRICEY FIX:</b>  Sheriff’s Helicopter 308, seen here fighting the Lookout Fire on October 17, 2012, went way over its expected repair costs.

Paul Wellman (file)

PRICEY FIX: Sheriff’s Helicopter 308, seen here fighting the Lookout Fire on October 17, 2012, went way over its expected repair costs.

Whirlybird Sticker Shock

Helicopter Repairs Threaten to Break the Bank

Thursday, September 5, 2013
Article Tools
Print friendly
E-mail story
Tip Us Off
iPod friendly
Share Article

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.


Independent Discussion Guidelines

Testy as the exchange may have been, good, I am glad it happened! I applaud the supervisors for giving it to the Sheriff's. Conversely, Brown for jumping in, defending his people, and yet admitting that there was some shock on his end too. The county is pretty expansive with quite a bit of areas that are inaccessible by car. Especially all those pot headz growing that wildwood weed out in the boonies. So yeah, I think the coppers need their choppers. I think they should aggressively pursue another maintenance contract, or get their own mechanic. As for the supervisor trying to pull a fast one politically, that stuff usually comes back to bite one in the behinder.

bimboteskie (anonymous profile)
September 5, 2013 at 10:45 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Five helicopters? Really? Wow, Santa Barbara County is just not that big to justify so many units.

805bailbonds (anonymous profile)
September 5, 2013 at 10:47 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Send the repair bills to all the hikers who demand helicopters rescue them when they fail to bring water on hot days, but remember to bring their cell phones and put S&R on their speed dials.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
September 5, 2013 at 11:48 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Bill Brown is the sheriff. It falls in his lap. Time for him to go.

Beachgirl77 (anonymous profile)
September 5, 2013 at 9:59 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I think fingers should be pointing at whoever came up with the bogus estimate. People have been repairing helicopters for a century (well, ok, a little less) and the costs of maintenance and repair should not be a mystery.

SezMe (anonymous profile)
September 6, 2013 at 1:07 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Five "birds" is ridiculous for a county this size.

Rescues in the channel? What about the U.S. Coast Guard?

Bill Brown has pretty much gotten everything he wanted, including circumventing the voters to get the north county jail upgrade.


Show him the door along with his little buddy, Cam.

The supes need to demand fiscal responsibility & hold ALL county brass accountable.

Barron (anonymous profile)
September 6, 2013 at 8:49 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I wonder what an oil change goes for?

The next wildfire we have, people will be complaining we don't have enough helo's. During the the Tea Fire, they (and other helicopters from outside the county) were flying sorties from SBJHS literally around the clock for days in a row.

Makes sense to have backups with finicky machinary like helicopters.

EastBeach (anonymous profile)
September 6, 2013 at 8:54 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Funding is not a problem for the Board of Supervisors or Chandra Waller. They will simply have the members of SEIU 620 pay for everything as they have for the last 4 years. 620 members are the lowest paid employees of the County and continue to be railroaded by these rich Supervisor SNOBS. It is time for them to be voted out!!

mcblaze (anonymous profile)
September 6, 2013 at 2:40 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Barron, you are absolutely correct questioning the "rescues in the channel"...congrats to the Coast Guard who performed a rescue this past Thursday without the help of Sheriff Bill Brown

Bill thinks the Supervisors will continue to play his game. They all seem tired of it, except Carbajal for some reason. Hopefully the voters see that another four years of BB will be a huge mistake.

99russelld (anonymous profile)
September 7, 2013 at 9:34 a.m. (Suggest removal)

The solution is obvious. Sell the choppers and rent time on the new Heli Tours to do Pot Tours. Save money and have fun doing it.

native2sb (anonymous profile)
September 7, 2013 at 7:06 p.m. (Suggest removal)


It is my understanding that when this remerged unit of the two departments occurred the Sheriff already had aircraft to do everything. The question that needs to be asked is why we still have helicopter 308? It should have been quite obvious to SOMEONE that this aircraft was in serious repair and should have been disposed of. Whether the Sheriff decided to keep it or it was a political move by the County Fire Chief to keep one of his aircraft in service needs to be addressed!

As far as the Coast Guard debate goes the Coast Guard is not always available. They have a large area to cover and come out of LA. The CG Cutter in Santa Barbara is a research ship and rarely deploys on distress calls.

"SELL THE CHOPPERS", now that's funny. The next time we have a big fire you same people will be screaming at the top of your lungs as to why we didn't get helicopters to the fire fast enough.

The problem isn't the aircraft. The problem is politics getting in the way and department heads who have their head in their a$$ when it comes to managing an air unit. It would be quite interesting to hear from the employees assigned to this unit. Something I've never heard or written anywhere before. That would be an article I would like to read....

Priceless (anonymous profile)
September 8, 2013 at 7:31 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Didn't the Chumash pay for a helicopter once, but are no longer supporting any maintenance for the pricey bird - maybe in a fit of pique over their "campgrounds"?

foofighter (anonymous profile)
September 8, 2013 at 10:05 p.m. (Suggest removal)

event calendar sponsored by: