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City agrees to order $3.7 million helicopter

Friday, June 29, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Despite some hesitation, Austin City Council voted Thursday night to “secure a place in line” by ordering a new police helicopter.


City Council voted 5-2 to declare its intent to purchase a $3.7 million helicopter, with Council Members Laura Morrison and Bill Spelman voting in opposition.


“This item does not approve the purchase of the helicopter, this just allocates the money that would allow us to start the process to see how we can go forward with this,” said Purchasing Officer Byron Johnson. He explained that Council would vote to finalize a purchase at a later date, most likely in September.


Spelman and other council members questioned why the Police Department was making the request for the purchase outside of the city’s normal budget process. Spelman calculated that ongoing operations and maintenance costs for the helicopter would add up to about $700,000 per year, not including the cost of personnel to operate the helicopter.


“It seems to me that this is a big enough expense, and it’s also an ongoing expense… It seems to me it makes more sense to put it in the usual budget discussions,” said Spelman. “The difference between October and December of 2014 doesn’t strike me as being that critical that we can’t just include this in our regular budget discussions.”


Police officials told Council members that it would take 14 to 18 months for a helicopter on order to be delivered. But Police Chief Art Acevedo stressed that time was of the essence because of the ongoing threat of wildfires. Acevedo said, “I fully believe that if we get this done sooner rather than later, we will have it by next summer.”


He said it was long past time that the city deploys a new helicopter to supplement its two aging copters, one of which is a 40-year-old Vietnam-era aircraft.


“I’m timing it for five years ago,” Acevedo said. “I think the question this Council needs to ask itself is in the year after we’ve had thousands of homes burn down in this region, shortly after we had another one of our citizens killed in a pursuit, ‘Do we have sufficient aircraft?’ And if the answer is no, then I think the sooner we get that aircraft online, the sooner we can enhance the safety of the people.”


“I think for a city that is a world-class city to rely on something that is so sub-par is really not consistent with the excellence that the people of this city expect from us,” said Acevedo. “Personally, I think it’s insufficient and kind of embarrassing that we’re relying on something from Vietnam in 2012.”


Acevedo said that the new helicopter would enable the city to start fire drops within minutes for the first time, as opposed to waiting on state or federal aid as has been the case in the past.


“I always say that the region thats emergency preparedness is relying on the state or the feds is a region that is preparing to fail,” said Acevedo. “I’m proud that with this helicopter what we’re saying to the people of Austin is that we’re not going to put our cards in someone else’s hands.”


Austin Fire Department Chief of Staff Harry Evans said that the Austin Fire Department would also have a “Bambi bucket” with the capability to drop 130 gallons at a time on fires. Both the Austin Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services said they expected to use the helicopter on occasion.

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