The Scottsdale Police Department has prepared to launch a helicopter unit in each of the last five years, but the project has never lifted off the paper its budget is printed on.
The city’s capital improvement plan for next budget year once again includes $6.4 million that voters granted the department in 2000 to purchase two helicopters and secure facilities to house them. The unit’s creation was halted by a budget crunch that came after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
It’s unlikely any helicopters will be patrolling Scottsdale next budget year, which begins July 1. But the city might build the vehicles a home.
The Scottsdale Airport is looking to redesign its planned maintenance facility to add a second story and hangar for the police unit when helicopters are finally purchased. Scott Gray, the city’s aviation director, said the airport intends to break ground on the dual-use building this summer.
The draft budget now being considered shows the helicopters’ acquisition is scheduled during the 2007-08 budget year. The proposal would bring several enhancements for the police department, city records show.
The years that have passed have added more expense to the project, as the cost of the helicopters and building materials has risen, said police Lt. Tony Gibson, coordinator of Scottsdale’s planned helicopter unit.
“Inflation is just eating away at that bond pretty significantly,” Gibson said. “The longer we wait, the more difficult it will be to bring this to fruition using the bond only.”
The helicopters are estimated to cost $1.5 million apiece; an additional $1.2 million a year will be needed to operate and maintain them.
City Councilwoman Betty Drake said that with Scottsdale’s financial health having returned, she is unsure of the reason behind the delay.
“It’s been floating around a long time,” said Drake, who serves on the budget committee.
Some city officials have questioned whether Scottsdale, which boasts a crime rate lower than neighboring cities, truly needs its own helicopters.
The city now calls on the Mesa Police Department and the state Department of Public Safety when it requires air support.
Still, a few vocal residents have lambasted Scottsdale for not quickly honoring the voters’ wishes.
“If people know the bird’s up there, or it has the capability of being up there, they’re going to think twice before they do something,” said George Knowlton, a Scottsdale neighborhood activist. In addition to police work, Knowlton said the helicopters could be utilized to spot and fight wildfires in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.
The police department has one of the city’s largest capital improvement budgets, totalling $92 million over the next five budget years to pay for construction and equipment.
Next budget year, the department is scheduled to spend roughly $30 million to build an operational support facility and $4.7 million on a records management system.
Scottsdale’s police force also is planning to grow by 15 sworn officers, funded by a special sales tax that voters approved in 2004, budget records show. A majority of those positions are for patrol duties.
The department has struggled to draw enough recruits to fill earlier hiring waves as police agencies across the Valley compete for candidates. Currently, Scottsdale has only three officer positions vacant, but 37 jobs are filled by people still in the police academy or field training, said Pat Dodds, a city spokesman.
Knowlton also has criticized the city for not growing its police ranks faster, contending the department is 40 officers short of meeting the national average for a city of Scottsdale’s size.
The city has 411 sworn officers, averaging 1.8 for every 1,000 residents.
FBI statistics show the national average is 2.3 sworn officers for every 1,000 residents, though cities in the West average 1.7 officers.
Despite being above average for the region, Drake said more officers are needed in some police units — particularly the mounted patrol, which monitors downtown bar activity on horses.
Without enough officers in the unit to fill their shifts, “the same guys end up working until strange hours in the morning, five nights out of the week,” she said.