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Onondaga County Sheriff hopes to keep helicopter in the air, despite loss of funding

Onondaga County Sheriff Kevin Walsh says he’s determined to keep the county’s med-evac helicopter, Air One flying, despite the loss of county funding for the chopper.

In New York State, only one law enforcement helicopter program is certified with the Federal Aviation Administration as a commercial air carrier. It’s Chautauqua County’s “Starflight” medevac and its FAA Part 135 certification, earned last spring, allows it to charge for services.

That puts it on the path to being self-supporting, a path closely watched by Onondaga County Sheriff Kevin Walsh. Walsh harbors the same high hopes for his office’s med-evac chopper, Air One.

“It took them 19 months,” said Walsh. “We’ve been in the process now for about 10 months. It isn’t easy to do, but we’re moving forward at a pretty good pace until the federal government cut funding for the FAA, which changed priorities for them. Now we’re trying to get back to the top of their priority pile and it hasn’t been easy.”

But it also hasn’t been easy for Onondaga County to foot the bill for the helicopter, which has a habit of taking off on free flights in response to calls from other counties.

“I’m not against helicopters,” said Onondaga County Legislature Chairman James Rhinehart during a recent budget meeting. “I’m just against the taxpayers in this county paying the tremendous expense to operate that.”

Calling the Bell-407 helicopter “The Cadillac,” Rhinehart sponsored the budget resolution to delete all earmarked county funding for the helicopter.

“I say that it’s time if the Sheriff can find in his budget or find it through grants or go forward with what this legislature has asked him to do and get the private sector to pay for the helicopter, then I have no problem with it,” said Rhinehart. “But I think we need to get back to a basic level of police service in Onondaga County and lower taxes. I think that we should cut the funding of the helicopter.”

Last year, Walsh saved much of the chopper’s budget from the chopping block by pledging to earn the Part 135 certification, as well as raise money through donations.

But as Rhinehart pointed out, that agreement came with an October 1 deadline.  And as Republican Judy Tassone says, it also came with a resolution  that the county not pay for outside flights.

“I like Air 1, I really do,” said Tassone. “But when Air 1 goes out of the county 8 out of 10 times and Onondaga County residents are paying for that, that’s wrong. Onondaga County residents should not be paying for that. Other than that, I really believe in Air 1 but I wish we could get other counties to contribute to pay for it.”

Tassone voted to strip county funding for the helicopter. The resolution passed by a vote of 12 to 7.  Democrat Bill Kinne voted yes.

“He (Walsh) knew the date was October 1 and he’s known that for a year now,” said Kinne. “He didn’t do his part of the deal and I think some legislators. Not THIS legislator, but some legislators think that even if he does get certain approvals, it still won’t cover the cost.”

But Democrat Tom Buckel voted against taking the funding away. He says he’s seen no proof that the county is paying too much and getting too little from Air One.

“The public health and safety of people has been put at risk,” said Buckel. “Because of the knee jerk reaction to the helicopter, the lack of a thoughtful cost-benefit analysis, I think that’s harmed our EMT’s, our fire, our police, our rescue.”

Walsh says the loss of funding will make it harder to follow through with his plan to keep Air One in the air.

“The indication is that we’re going to have to find a way to raise all $600,000 of that,” said Walsh. “It’s going to be very difficult, but we’re going to give it our best shot.”