Last summer, and the summer before, funding for the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department's Henry 1 helicopter program was on the chopping block.

Yesterday, the helicopter was out looking for a drunken party guest who went missing at a wedding on a remote property near Lake Sonoma. It turned out the guy had tired out on a late-night hike with friends and decided to sleep in the woods.

Henry 1 is a valuable tool. With its highly trained crew, the helicopter specializes in ocean rescues and plucking people out of other precarious situations.

But every once in a while, you have to wonder: Why do we have to pay for this?

The cost to taxpayers is about $1.5 million a year, which is a mere drop in the $1.4 billion bucket of the county's budget, and which is priceless if you're the person going under for the third time when a deputy dangling from a long rope pulls you out of the frigid Pacific.

But at what point does a search or a rescue become a service that should be paid for instead of a law enforcement action that is deemed necessary for public safety?

Early Sunday, after a Saturday wedding on Rockpile Road, a group of revelers went for a hike at around 3 a.m., according to Julie Johnson's story in this morning's paper. One of them, a 28-year-old San Francisco man who was described as having consumed several alcoholic drinks during the celebration, said he wasn't feeling well and stopped to rest. His friends continued on without him and apparently went back to the house to sleep. They started looking for him at about 9 a.m. and at about noon called authorities for help.

The Sheriff's Department responded in force. By land, a search-and-rescue team fanned out on the property and off-road motorcycle deputies came from the other end of the county, where they had been working at the drag races at Sonoma Raceway. By water, the marine unit searched the nearby shoreline of Lake Sonoma. By air, Henry 1 beat the bushes from above.

The helicopter apparently woke the sleeping man at around 1 p.m. Henry had to return to the airport to refuel, but eventually returned to Rockpile Road and picked up the missing man at about 5:30 p.m. after land-based deputies found him on a trail about a mile from the main residence. Henry flew him the rest of the way back to the house, Johnson reported.

That's a lot of activity and an expensive ride for one guy sleeping off the effects of a wedding reception.

I don't mind paying for Henry 1, and for other law enforcement services. I am glad to know that if I or my loved ones need help, help is there to be offered.

But where is our own responsibility in a situation such as this? If this man had fallen down drunk and broken his leg this weekend, and needed transport to a hospital by ambulance, he and his insurance company would have been charged for the ride. But since he passed out in the woods, and his friends left him there and couldn't find their way back to him the next morning, the citizens of Sonoma County foot the bill.

Two months ago, Henry 1 was dispatched to Del Norte County, where a group of nine emergency responders was stuck on an oceanside cliff after being sent to rescue two injured civilians. A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter flew the civilians to safety, but as night fell and the tide rose, the Coast Guard decided it was too dangerous to send its own helicopter in for the stranded rescue crew. Instead, the state Office of Emergency Services summoned the night-flying experts from Sonoma County.

Afterward, a nonprofit group that was formed when county budget cuts threatened the helicopter program donated $3,500 to cover costs from that trip.

Do you think this weekend's wedding guests might pass the hat for the help they received Sunday in finding their lost friend? Probably not. So it would be nice if we could send them the bill.

<i>Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.</i>