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Despite Budget Constraints, Columbus Keeps Large Police Helicopter Fleet.

Even as city of Columbus faces serious budget constraints and the prospect of laying off scores of police officers, it continues to fund its expensive police helicopter fleet.

WOSU's Mandie Trimble reports, the police division's aviation unit is one of the nation's largest and much larger than fleets of comparable cities.

A Columbus Police helicopter warms up for take off. Its two man crew will relieve another one that has spent the past two hours patrolling over the city. The Columbus police helicopter unit has six active choppers and 18 full-time pilots. They fly sixteen hours a day, six days a week -less on Sunday.

Last year the city spent $3,600,000 to run the unit. 58% of that total went to salaries, benefits and over time. $565,000 was spent to maintain the helicopters and it cost almost $400,000 dollars to fuel them.

As it turns out, Columbus has one of the largest police helicopter units in the country - and a much larger fleet than cities of similar size and population. Take Austin, Texas and Charlotte, North Carolina for example both cities have about the same square mileage and population as Columbus. While Columbus has 6 police choppers Austin and Charlotte each have only two.

Dallas and Indianapolis, which are larger than Columbus each have four. Louisville has nearly double the square miles of Columbus - it has just one police helicopter. The New York City Police Department has seven helicopters - just one more than Columbus has in its fleet.

So it begs the question: At a time when Columbus is considering laying off nearly 300 police officers, can it afford 6 helicopters? Lieutenant Michael Elkins heads up Columbus's aviation unit. He says there's just no getting around having fewer than six choppers.

"We fly a lot."

The unit clocked nearly five thousand flight hours last year. Elkins says the plan is to have one helicopter in the air at all times and another one waiting to leave immediately when it comes in. WOSU asked, then why can't the unit operate with only three - one in the air, a second waiting to take off, and a third for stand-by. Elkins says - nope, won't work.

"Well, we'd wear the helicopter out. If I just constantly flew that same helicopter, that helicopter would be worn out."

Elkins says the unit's mission is to patrol the city much like cruisers do - only from the air.

"And the whole point of us is patrol support. So we are a patrol vehicle. Not any different really than a cruiser, only a cruiser that can go much faster and a much wider area." Says Elkins.

Last year the city spent $736.00 an hour to fly a Columbus Police Helicopter. Kurt Rothert runs Austin's aviation unit. He says they get by with just two choppers - ideally Rothert would like to have three, but the city cannot afford it. While Rothert says six helicopters seems excessive he says it has its advantages.

"By having multiple aircraft and multiple crews you have the ability to relieve each other on station and you have no gap in coverage." Says Rothert.

Hubert Williams is president of the Police Foundation a non-profit research group in Washington, D.C. Williams also directed the Newark, New Jersey police department for more than ten years. He questions the value of helicopter units because of their high costs. Although Williams says they are valuable in rural areas and to conduct preventive patrolling. But he says police departments can do without them.

"If you have the resources the aviation unit is probably a good thing to have. When you don't have the resources and you've got to make cutbacks in your operation that's one of the places you should take a close look at." Says Williams.

Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman has asked voters to pass a twenty-five percent income tax increase - from two-percent to two-and-a-half percent -because the city's economic dire straits. If it does not pass the police department stands to lose about 300 police officers. After hearing about the possible cuts, The Police Foundation's Hubert Williams posed this question.

"Is it more valuable to have a helicopter in the air than a cop on the street? (What do you think? You ran a police department.) Absolutely no question in my mind that the strength, the backbone of the police is its patrol force - officers in the street. That's the backbone of every police department." Says Williams.

There has been no talk, at least not publicly, about making cuts to the aviation unit. In fact, it's scheduled to move to a new $6,500,000 facility in July.

Columbus Public Safety Director Mitchell Brown says he is comfortable with a six-helicopter fleet. He says it supports the patrols on the ground and offers the fastest response time. So what if tax hike fails? Does the aviation unit face cuts, too? Brown said...

"If we are going to lose other officers then maintaining the helicopter unit might be something we might have to give serious consideration to."

In addition to its six active helicopters Columbus Police has two others , which it is trying to sell.

Mandie Trimble WOSU News.