The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office this week is attempting to save the county's helicopter from mothballs by reducing hours, cutting staff and slashing the $1.9 million annual cost by a third.
The helicopter program, which began more than 40 years ago, was eliminated in a proposed budget issued by county administrators last week. The new maneuver is an eleventh-hour effort to convince the Board of Supervisors to tap into contingency funds to keep the helicopter in the air, but at a lower cost.
The budget's $42.8 million deficit poses perhaps the greatest threat to the helicopter program in its history, a period marked by recurring efforts to make it a casualty of the budget-cutting process.
The unit grew out of a private pilot's zeal in the late 1960s into a crew of highly skilled tactical officers, paramedics and a pilot trained to perform ocean and land rescues, assist law enforcement missions, fight wildfires and head the volunteer search and rescue team.
"Those of us in the Sheriff's Office working on this have been as creative as we can to get the cost down to just over half of what it was last year," Sheriff Steve Freitas said.
The helicopter, called Henry 1, was used 814 times during the 2009-10 fiscal year, including for 114 search and rescue missions and 494 law enforcement actions.
Supervisors will decide whether the helicopter's use during law enforcement and medical emergencies outweighs its high cost.
"Because of the geography that we have in Sonoma County, the rescue capability of our helicopter is critical to our primary mission," Freitas said. "It literally saves people's lives."
Under the proposed budget, the helicopter would be grounded for the budget year that starts July 1. The sheriff's office would pay about $350,000 to retain the airport hangar lease and a mechanic to perform minimal upkeep.
Deputies on the helicopter unit likely would be reassigned to patrol and other units. Several part-time paramedics, who all are working firefighters in Sonoma and Marin counties, would lose their contracts, as would Chief Pilot Paul Bradley, who has been with the unit for about eight years.
Several county supervisors have toured the Henry 1 hangar over the last few days as they consider whether to reach into one of three special reserve funds to keep the program running for the year.
Supervisor Valerie Brown, whose district includes Annadel State Park, a site of regular rescues, said she would support funding the helicopter at a reduced cost for a year to give sheriff's staff time to find alternative funding sources.
"Henry 1 is a valued service. There's no question about that," Brown said.
Sheriff's Office staff are brainstorming to create revenue sources, including grants and corporate sponsorships, said Lt. Tim Duke, who oversees the unit.
The helicopter crew could also contract with fire agencies to help provide air support for wildfires, a paying function the crew has performed in the past.
Volunteers with the sheriff's search and rescue team, who work under the helicopter crew, created a task force to launch fundraising efforts.
"We're trying to do everything we can to keep the helicopter program sustainable and save money, Duke said. "But our capabilities must remain the same."
The Henry 1 crew is known for its expertise in a specific kind of rescue with a fixed rope, called a long-line rescue. It's a technique that is of particular use along Sonoma County's deep ravines and rugged coast.