One day in the future, Guilford County may have a helicopter.
The county may even have a fleet of county helicopters. However, at a Board of Commissioners budget work session on Thursday, May 25, the board reached a consensus that, at this time, the county did not need to purchase a helicopter, which can cost anywhere from $250,000 to a million or more.
The commissioners are still undecided, however, as to whether they will say yes to the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department’s request for a new plane to be used for law enforcement purposes. The Sheriff’s Department has a plane it has been using for searches, chases, finding drug fields and other purposes. However, that plane is old and needs to be replaced if the department is going to keep using one.
When Guilford County Budget Director Toy Beeninga was discussing budget requests from the Sheriff’s Department, he told the board that one request was “$300,000 for Special Operations Aerial Equipment,” and he moved on quickly to other items. After a moment the commissioners with confused looks on their faces asked Beeninga to go back to that item.
“Is it a drone?” one commissioner asked, while another asked, “Is it a whole airplane?”
Guilford County Manager Mike Halford explained that, years ago, the Sheriff’s Department went in with some surrounding counties and purchased a small plane and shared the cost of operating it each year.
Those other counties were pulling out of the arrangement and would not be sharing the cost of a new plane. Halford explained that the current plane needed to be grounded.
“That plane is coming to the end of engine life,” he told the board.
The question in the air remained as to why staff had not just said what the thing was.
Staff had been trying to avoid this moment and, rather than perpetuate the confusion, one county staff member explained, “We were asked not to use the word ‘plane,’ – but it is a small plane they would use to do reconnaissance. The plane is coming to the end of life and they would like to replace it with a small Cessna that they have identified.”
Commissioner James Upchurch, likely in jest, asked, “Would a helicopter be cheaper?”
Staff informed the commissioners that a helicopter would in fact not be cheaper, and the commissioners showed no interest in purchasing a county helicopter at this time, so the discussion went back to the department’s request for a new plane.
Commissioner Mary Beth Murphy suggested to staff that they should bring some more information about the uses of the plane as well a cost-benefit analysis.
Commissioner Pat Tillman began to recommend contacting the other counties to have them consider sharing the cost that but then realized that wasn’t going to happen since they had already decided not to participate anymore in the program, which also requires operating money each year along with maintenance and upkeep.
The fact that other counties were backing out of the aerial program seemed to make an impression on several commissioners, so the department may not get a shiny new plane this year, and certainly will not get a helicopter.