County officials raised their eyebrows in January over hefty, roundabout donations made by a nonprofit organization to the Sheriff’s Office. The gifts violated policy by not first winning the approval of the Board of Supervisors and frustrated the Auditor-Controller by neglecting to get those donations on the books in a timely manner. What was on the table in January — the Sheriff’s Office asking the supervisors to officially accept $826,065 worth of helicopter-related donations — came back this week with warnings for Sheriff Bill Brown to not let history repeat itself.
The organization in question, Project: Rescue Flight, formed more than a decade ago and over the past few years has contributed to the department’s Aviation Support Unit. In the 2013-2014 fiscal year, the organization wrote a $307,556 check to paint four helicopters and cover other expenses. In the first half of this fiscal year, Project: Rescue Flight forked over $18,509 for more painting and some repairs. The third donation under scrutiny was $500,000 for mechanical work.
When Brown asked the supervisors for their after-the-fact endorsement, the board and Auditor-Controller Bob Geis balked, as policy requires all donations greater than $10,000 to be preapproved; Geis’s office expressed worries about recording prior-period transactions. Also troublesome was the fact that a majority of Project: Rescue Flight’s seven-person board were Sheriff’s Office employees. A subsequent meeting between the parties remedied the latter issue, with department employees no longer making up the board’s majority.
The supervisors on Tuesday ultimately accepted the donations, but they asked that the policy return to their agenda for reiteration. Taking flak from the supervisors, Brown said that Project: Rescue Flight gets much of its money from another nonprofit that wishes to remain anonymous and refuses to donate directly to government entities. He said the group made efforts to be on the up-and-up by following the legal advice of a “prominent” law firm. Still, Supervisor Peter Adam called the matter “troubling,” using the donations’ purpose to make his point. “What if we didn’t approve this today?” he asked. “Can you un-paint a helicopter?”