Pasco County Sheriff Bob White announced last week he could save the aviation unit he had reluctantly disbanded earlier this year to conserve money in a tight budget year.
His ace card? Nearly $4.3 million in federal stimulus money to pay for 24 deputies over the next three years. Announced July 28, the award spurred him to drop a separate budget request for eight deputies, freeing up funds to keep the aviation unit.
But behind the scenes, the effort to keep the helicopters in the air had been in the works since April — just a month after White held a news conference to say he was shutting down the unit within 60 days.
White first got word in the spring about the federal stimulus grant application and figured that winning money for deputies might give him a way to keep the unit, said spokesman Kevin Doll.
"He's always thinking ahead," said Doll. "That's when he decided maybe we could keep it."
But it wasn't something White made public.
He listed the closure of the aviation unit on his Web site and in his June 1 budget request to the county as one of the 18 cost-saving measures he had undertaken in the past year.
He informed county officials, who oversee the budget that pays for the annual $60,000 hangar lease at Hidden Lake Estates, that he did not need to renew the deal.
Doll said White was trying to be discreet until he knew if the grant would come through.
"Why put out false hope like that if we don't know?" he asked. "The sheriff works on what he knows."
The four helicopters and much of the accompanying equipment are part of the federal government's surplus program. That means if the unit is disbanded, the sheriff must return everything to the program so other agencies can use it. Once it goes, there's little chance of getting it back.
Asset transfer halted
White held a news conference about the closure of the aviation unit on March 5.
On March 23, he issued a formal notification to authorities that the aviation unit would be disbanded.
But on April 6, his office said: Hold up.
That's when an internal auditor in the Sheriff's Office, Karen Oruwariye, sent an e-mail to Rita Acevedo, a state official who acts as a coordinator between local law enforcement agencies and the federal government.
"There have been recent developments regarding the aviation unit at the Pasco Sheriff's Office," Oruwariye wrote.
"It would be appreciated if the process of transferring … assets could be delayed for at least a week until further communication with the Board of County Commissioners is held and final communication of the unit status is provided."
The next day, on April 7, White appeared at a County Commission meeting and asked commissioners' blessing in applying for $11 million in stimulus money to put 60 more deputies on the streets.
At the time, he didn't know if Pasco would get any at all.
In the meantime, two of the aviation unit's five employees had been transferred, one back to the road and one to the jail. Two pilots, who are deputies, and the mechanic have been taking inventory, a necessary step before equipment is transferred.
Acevedo said Pasco had sent in detailed lists of inventory the office is ready to turn in now. But none of it, she said, would prevent the agency from operating its helicopters.
"They've kept enough supplies to keep them going," she said. "They shouldn't have a problem running the aircraft with what they plan to keep."
Hangar cost in the air
Commissioners will have a say in the resurrection of the aviation unit. For one, the federal stimulus money paying for the new deputies — thus freeing dollars for the aviation unit — needs their approval. And secondly, the hangar costs would have to come out of the county budget, most likely out of the roughly $11.5 million commissioners are using to save some of the 260 positions on the chopping block in other county departments.
Commissioner Pat Mulieri spoke with White briefly last week and said she told him she was concerned about where the county would find the money for the hangar.
It would cost $60,000 to stay at the 5,000-square-foot space at Hidden Lake; in the alternative, White has also proposed using inmate labor to build a hangar near the jail for roughly $145,000.
"I said, 'Sheriff, I don't know where we can find that money,' " Mulieri recalled.
Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said she spoke with White in March soon after he announced he would cut the aviation unit and expressed her disappointment.
"I said I think the aviation unit has a very valuable place in law enforcement for our county," she said. "All I could envision was seeing a lost child at Starkey Park."
But she said she didn't talk to him about it again and had assumed White was doing away with the unit.
Doll said the sheriff still could: "He will do that if the funding is not there."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected]times.com or (727) 869-6247.