TUPELO – City leaders seeking budget cuts have eyed the Tupelo Police Department’s helicopter program as a potential target for cost savings.
In the past five years, taxpayers have spent nearly $274,000 on a retired National Guard JetRanger helicopter that flies about 10 missions a year.
It’s a large expense for a single law enforcement agency that could better spend the money elsewhere, some City Council members have suggested.
Tupelo Police Chief Tony Carleton, who was hired in December to oversee the department and all its divisions, apparently agrees. He’ll trim about $18,000 annually by replacing three paid, on-call pilots with a volunteer airman who will fly the craft for free.
But nearly $20,000 in annual costs remain:
• $11,000 for insurance.
• $4,500 for maintenance.
• $2,300 for fuel.
• $1,730 for hangar rental.
Carleton said he’s committed to the program and that, if Tupelo grounds its helicopter, it risks losing it altogether.
The Tupelo Police Department, like four other law enforcement agencies in the state, received its aircraft through the federal 1033 Program. It lets the U.S. Department of Defense transfer retired military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies at no cost.
Tupelo did pay $7,500 for the helicopter, but it was in administrative fees through the pass-through agency, the Mississippi Department Finance & Administration’s Office of Surplus Property.
It also spent roughly $100,000 to upgrade the chopper. About $20,000 of that came from grant money.
“When they get something transferred to them, every so often I send letter to make sure they’re using it,” said Missy Elmore, the state department’s point of contact. “That’s one of the stipulations, that it has to be in use. It doesn’t need to be sitting for quite a while or anything.”
Tupelo appears to be the only Mississippi city with a helicopter. Other aviation programs are run by county or state agencies.
Those agencies include the sheriff’s departments of Adams, DeSoto, Harrison and Jackson counties, and the Mississippi Department of Public Safety.
In the law enforcement world, cities of Tupelo’s size usually rely on larger agencies to run helicopter missions for them. It’s rare to see a community of 36,000 people with its own aircraft, said Martin Jackson, president of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association, an organization whose members include police and sheriffs’ departments nationwide.
“Not a lot of small agencies have their own air unit,” Jackson said, ranking Tupelo among the smallest he has encountered.
But that doesn’t mean it’s unnecessary, said Jackson, adding that it’s impossible to put a price on the kind of services a chopper provides.
“If you have lost a loved one, whether it’s a child or an Alzheimer’s patient, it’s a valuable tool to help find that person,” he said. “On the other side of coin is when you have budget constraints, you do ask yourself, is it an expense we can afford?”
Tupelo isn’t alone in facing that question.
The Harrison County Sheriff’s Department has struggled recently to hem in costs against a bleak economy. The department flies two helicopters on about 60 missions a year, but Maj. Ron Pullen said it’s reducing the number of flights to save money.
Pullen said his department employs two part-time pilots and some part-time mechanics to fly and service the choppers. They collectively cost the department less than $20,000 a year.
Adams County uses volunteer pilots and a volunteer licensed mechanic. The county, which owns the hangar, offers free space.
“We probably spend about $13,000 a year on the helicopter,” said Maj. Charles Harrigill. “You’ve got to have some good volunteers.”
Volunteers save money, but they’re not without risk, said Billy Curl, a retired National Guard pilot who has flown Tupelo’s police helicopter on a $1,500 monthly retainer contract since 2006.
The fee covers Curl and two other pilots who carry pagers and are on call 24 hours a day.
“There have been other programs in the United States where pilots flew for free,” Curl said. “There was a severe amount of abuse on equipment, maintaining of paperwork. Those programs failed and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs.”
Harrigill said his department hasn’t experienced those woes.
Still, Curl said the fee provides compensation in case pilots get hurt on a mission. He also deemed the cost minimal compared to what a full-time pilot would make.
Prior to 2006, the police department had an in-house pilot – a National Guard-trained officer who could fly the craft. But he left after being deployed to Iraq.
Curl said the bulk of his Tupelo missions involved searching for dementia or Alzheimer’s patients. He also recalled searching for a downed plane in Lowndes County and an endangered woman in Itawamba County.
Tupelo doesn’t charge these neighboring agencies for flying its missions, but some council members suggested it should.
That’s rare, said the ALEA’s Jackson. Most agencies help each other for free. That’s the case in both Adams and Harrison counties.
“We’ve tried charging, and you can’t,” Harrigil said. “There’s no way to collect the money. It’s just – we chalk it up to the cost of doing business and being a good neighbor.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Equipment . . . . . . . . $84,958.01
Fuel . . . . . . . . . . . . . $11,727.38
Hangar rental . . . . . . . $7812.88
Flight service . . . . . . . . $$60,885
Maintenance . . . . . $$53,324.28
Insurance . . . . . . . . . $55,000.00
TOTAL . . . . . . . . . . $$273,707.55
Emily Le Coz / NEMS Daily Journal