Placer County’s new $4 million chopper airborne in turbulent fiscal times

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
-A +A
It’s a new recruit. But for Placer County Sheriff’s Department chief pilot, it’s has already had its mettle tested and proved its worth. Sgt. Van Bogardus was at the controls of the newly purchased, $4 million sheriff’s Eurocopter for a call into the high country past Foresthill, where a snowmobiler was stranded after running out of gas and darkness was closing in. Bogardus said that with the old, Army surplus copter the department had been using, he wouldn’t have been able to get to the snowmobiler in time. With the new Eurocopter the Sheriff’s Department has been flying in a limited role since late last year, Bogardus was able to track the stranded recreationist by GPS beacon, land and fly him out earlier this winter. While the purchase of the new chopper has hit some turbulence in political circles over its high cost and questions of the expense during an economic downturn, the Sheriff’s Department is giving their new “flying patrol car” high marks. It travels 30 percent faster than the department’s old helicopter and can reach higher altitudes. Auburn-area Supervisor Jim Holmes stood alone against other supervisors in opposing the purchase when it was presented to the board in 2007. At the time, he warned about projections on county revenues that indicated leaner times were ahead. “It’s the most expensive piece of equipment the county has ever bought in one of the biggest economic downturns we’ve had,” Holmes said. “If we had the money, I wouldn’t have any problem.” With a funding package that was adjusted after the initial estimate for the chopper was raised from $3.4 million to $4 million, the board approved the new copter in early 2007. Early last year – with the county committed to paying $2.5 million and another $400,000 to $600,000 expected from the sale of the old chopper – the final funding package was bridged by a $1 million gift from the United Auburn Indian Community, owners of Thunder Valley Casino. “It was a generous contribution – they donated $1 million to keep us in the air and I can express my thanks on behalf of Sheriff Bonner,” Bogardus said. While Sheriff Ed Bonner was unavailable for an interview on a purchase he pushed for in budget discussions with the Board of Supervisors more than three years ago, air operations supervisor Lt. Dave Harris said that as a law-enforcement tool, it has already shown value to the community. Besides the snowbound rescue, the chopper was the eye in the sky on a recent discovery of a body of a missing man who had jumped from the Foresthill Bridge weeks before, he said. It’s equipped with night-time surveillance equipment as well as rescue gear. As the outdoor grow season for marijuana starts again, will be flying patrol missions over secluded areas. Falcon 30 has replaced the old Army helicopter, which still awaits a buyer. With mission equipment and parts, it was appraised for $686,000 and is still for sale. “We’ve had some interested parties but haven’t sold it,” Harris said. “We don’t want to sell it too cheaply.” Flight time is also down for the Sheriff’s Department as it deals with lower revenue now and in the future. “We’ve gone from flying 850 hours a year to 300 hours a year,” Bogardus said. The purchase comes at a time when other law enforcement helicopter units are also cutting back or even being discontinued. The Colorado Springs, Colo., Tulsa, Okla., and Oakland police department have all grounded their helicopters within the past year while San Bernardino and Corona police departments eliminated theirs because of fuel and maintenance costs. Harris said the Placer County unit is flying the new chopper with the same budget it had last year. “With a helicopter that costs more to operate, we have to reduce our flight hours,” he said.