NEW PORT RICHEY — Deputy John Perez flies. It's his passion. He joined the Pasco County Sheriff's Office right out of high school and spent time as a detective in vice narcotics, but he loved flying and when he heard there might be an opening in the aviation unit, he went for it.
That was 12 years ago. On Wednesday, Perez found out he won't be a pilot anymore. The Sheriff's Office is disbanding its aviation unit to save money. It takes more than a half million dollars a year to run the unit — from salaries and benefits down to rehabbing old surplus parts to keep the aircraft operational.
"This is a measure of last resort," said Sheriff Bob White.
The unit consists of four employees: Perez and another pilot, Deputy Richard Morse; an observer, Deputy John Stanina; and a mechanic, Tim Bullis.
Perez, Morse and Stanina will be redeployed to jobs in road patrol. Bullis is a civilian and may land another job in the agency.
Bullis, 40, came to the Sheriff's Office two years ago after a career in the military and with aviation companies. He's thinking of going through the academy to become a deputy.
"This is one of my favorite places," Bullis said Thursday in the aviation unit's office at a hangar at Hidden Lake Estates in New Port Richey. The office is sparse, but plastered with calendar-sized pinup photos of helicopters — sleek European helicopters in front of glaciers, medical helicopters, helicopters with flames painted on the sides.
"We get to fly around at night, catching bad guys," Bullis said, wearing a green jumpsuit, a bittersweet smile on his face. "It sure beats sitting at a desk."
The aviation unit has been around for more than 30 years. Its four Vietnam-era helicopters were obtained through a federal surplus grant program. The helicopters have to be returned to the federal government, as part of the grant program. The Sheriff's Office also has a 1978 Cessna Skyhawk fixed-wing plane that it will sell online.
"Everyone is disappointed," White said. "The aviation unit has been an incredible tool for us over the years."
The helicopters are used for various purposes: tracking suspects, finding missing children and adults with dementia or other illnesses who wander off, catching thieves stealing copper or air-conditioning units on rooftops, assisting Pasco Fire Rescue to measure the scope of wildfires.
The unit will be disbanded within 60 days.
White said the decision saves about $158,000 a year in maintenance, fuel, equipment and insurance costs. It saves the county $60,000 on leasing a hangar for the helicopters and plane. He said it costs about $600,000 a year to fund the aviation unit, when all costs — including the salary and benefits of unit employees — are totaled.
The unit's chief pilot — Deputy Jim Greene — was redeployed to working in the jail earlier this year.
White said this is one of the hardest decisions he's had to make since taking office.
"It's devastating," he said.
But the money just isn't there, especially with the county anticipating a $30 million budget shortfall this year. Maj. Maurice Radford said the county has mutual-aid agreements with other agencies that have aviation units, but those will be used only in significant, critical incidents.
"These are tough times," Radford said. He said it isn't likely the aviation unit will ever come back to Pasco County, because of how much money it would take to get it going again.
"This was my career goal," Perez said quietly. "And it's gone."
Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected]