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Kootenai County helicopter unit takes off

by KAYE THORNBRUGH
Staff Writer | March 2, 2023 1:09 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — Kootenai County’s own helicopter unit has been cleared for takeoff.

County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to approve an agreement between the sheriff’s office and the Kootenai County Regional Air Support Unit, a 501(c)(3) formed last year for this purpose. The two-year, donation-funded pilot program for the helicopter unit will be the first of its kind in Idaho.

The unit will operate with volunteer pilots who have at least 1,000 hours of flight time and will focus primarily on search and rescue.

Donated funds have been used to purchase and upgrade a $500,000 1994 BELL 206 helicopter, which seats four and doesn’t have hoist capabilities. The sheriff’s office will use $100,000 of asset forfeiture funds to purchase a thermal camera, spotlight and cabling.

Annual expenses for the unit, including maintenance and insurance, are estimated to be about $71,500, according to the sheriff’s office.

Commissioner Leslie Duncan expressed support for the helicopter unit, particularly its potential use for search and rescue.

“What I wouldn’t favor is enforcing traffic infractions on land or water,” she said Tuesday. “To me, that’s not the best use of this resource.”

Kootenai County Sheriff Bob Norris said he agrees.

“The Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office is not interested in enforcing any infractions with this tool whatsoever,” he told commissioners.

He said the helicopter may be used to conduct surveillance as part of criminal investigations.

Commissioner Bill Brooks questioned how the unit will be funded in the future.

“After two years, when maybe the significant donors drop off, does that burden come back to the county taxpayer?” he asked.

Norris said he’s confident that the remaining funds needed to pay for the unit in the future can be covered by donations, just like the K-9 unit is.

No county money will fund the helicopter unit, except for $10,000 Kootenai County previously allocated each year to Spokane County to use its helicopter.