Sunday, November 28, 2021

What's $71,500 worth?

Staff Writer | November 25, 2021 1:06 AM

The Kootenai County Sheriff Air Support Unit could take flight by next summer if advocates can raise a couple hundred thousand dollars in community donations.

KCSO Lt. Mark Ellis initially pitched the idea to county commissioners on Nov. 8, but said the concept has been in the works for about two years. If implemented, the KCSO Air Support Unit would be the first of its kind in Idaho.

The most significant hurdle, Ellis said, is cost. However, the agency has already garnered much of the $600,000 to $1 million purchase price for a BELL 206 LC Turbine helicopter through local donors.

Todd Stam, the owner of Aspen Homes, is one of the unit's supporters. Stam has donated hangar space and a dolly system for the helicopter at Coeur d'Alene Airport.

Stam, a helicopter pilot, first got connected with Ellis and KCSO last winter. Stam said he's always thought about the benefits of a local aerial law enforcement unit. After meeting with agency representatives, the group researched how they could turn their dreams into reality.

"Every time we get together, we think of more uses for (a helicopter)," Stam told The Press. "It is such a valuable asset."

Kootenai County averages 24 missing people per year in the 3,220,000-acre Panhandle National Forest. The agency also handles several more cases within city limits, Ellis said.

He added that when KCSO receives a service call in Harrison, Gozzer Ranch, Rockford Bay or Killarney Lake, it can take deputies hours to arrive by car or boat.

"When we do have any lost person or a person that falls through the ice on one of the chain lakes, it can take deputies 45 minutes to respond," Ellis said. "A little while ago, we took (Stam's) private helicopter out there, and it took 10 minutes."

Covering the cost of ongoing maintenance would be the largest financial burden to Kootenai County, Ellis said. Annual out-of-pocket expenses for the unit would be about $71,500. Half the yearly allotment, about $31,000, would go toward insurance. The remainder would be used for fuel, lubricant and maintenance expenses.

Kootenai County already allocates $10,000 annually to Spokane County to use its helicopter. However, the department prioritizes local service calls and isn't always able to cross the state line.

"I'd say we call them several times a month," Ellis said. "I don't want to put down Spokane County by any means, but we called them last night, and they never showed up."

Having a helicopter based in Coeur d'Alene would give KCSO the ability to "dictate when we use it" and cut down on response time.

The KCSO Air Support Unit is still in the fundraising stage. So far, the two said they are about $300,000 away from purchasing a recently rebuilt helicopter from a Coeur d'Alene Airport hangar owner.

To reach their goal, Stam said the group is looking for donors willing to become one of the unit's "core founders." After purchasing the helicopter, the founding group would donate the vehicle to the county.

Stam believes that as word spreads about the unit, it will garner more support from the community.

"When we sit down with one of these guys, it takes us about 10 minutes before they are in," Stam said.

If implemented, KCSO plans to host annual or biannual fundraising events to cover operating expenses, Ellis said.

Sandpoint-based Mountain Power Aviation has committed to finance ongoing maintenance costs. By buying a helicopter with new parts, KCSO hopes to delay significant maintenance expenses.

Ellis said the most expensive replacement would be a turbine engine, which costs upward of $150,000.

The average turbine engine lasts about 3,500 miles, which Ellis believes could take several years to reach. Stam said he frequently flies his private helicopter and is yet to hit 100 hours. The Spokane Regional Air Support Unit reports about 200 hours of helicopter use annually, Ellis added.

If funding falls through, the agency will return the aircraft to the founding group.

Ellis said KCSO hopes to partner with regional law enforcement and public safety organizations to lower costs to the county. The unit would also be eligible for federal grants.

There have recently been several articles in The Press about wage and staffing shortages within the KCSO. Considering the argument that $71,500 could be better used to increase county pay, Ellis said the concerns are valid. However, he argues that the $71,500 is a small price to save a life.

"If you have a 4-year-old child that goes missing, as we do almost weekly, what's the cost of finding that child as fast as possible?" he asked. "Is $71,000 worth it? That's just a no-brainer to me."