Police copter to cost more

County to use assets from drug seizures to pay for increase


The price of a new helicopter for Howard County police has increased 15 percent, to $2.3 million since May, when the County Council approved, in concept, a $2 million purchase as part of the annual county budget process.

A bill providing for $1 million in financing over seven years to help pay for the helicopter is slated for introduction in the council next week, though another $1 million for the purchase was included as part of the annual county budget approved in May. County officials plan to use $311,000 in drug-seizure assets to pay the rest of the bill.

Jim Vannoy, an aide to County Executive James N. Robey, said electronics and communications gear on the helicopter cost $648,000 alone.

"I will wait to hear what the justification is, and act accordingly," said council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.

Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican who is running for county executive, said that although he supports having a new helicopter for the safety of the pilots, "I do have a concern with the overall cost," including the purchase and operating expenses.

In May, county officials defended the purchase of the Bell 407 helicopter to replace a 40-year-old military surplus OH-58 model based with two helicopters owned by Anne Arundel County at a facility near Fort Meade. Anne Arundel bought a Bell 407 last year.

Howard County Police Chief Wayne Livesay said Howard's helicopter logs about 300 hours a year, an average of about six hours a week. He said Howard needs the same model because the two counties often exchange pilots. Howard's helicopter also needs $300,000 in repairs and lacks modern wiring for electronic mapping to aid searches.

No council members raised questions about the helicopter purchase during the budget review.

In other business at this week's meeting, the council will also deal with four proposed charter amendments and a resolution by Guzzone and west Columbia Democratic Councilman Ken Ulman that would limit the government's power to take property by eminent domain to only public uses.

Another measure would allow several long-term residents of 28 county-owned rental townhouses in North Laurel to buy them. Leonard S. Vaughan, the housing director, said five residents' incomes have risen enough since the units were built in 1991 to enable them to buy the units.

The measure would authorize the county Housing Commission to arrange the sales.

The charter amendments have been a bone of contention before, though Robey said all are technical corrections of often out-of-date language.

"They're so outdated and outmoded I don't think there's any sense to leave them in there," he said.

The changes were among a list of proposals recommended for the November 2004 ballot by the last county Charter Review Commission, but council Republicans objected to having more than two charter changes on any one election ballot. Four council votes are needed to put an item on the ballot.

Merdon said this week: "I still have the same feeling to limit it to two or three [changes]." He said he wanted to closely examine one change involving the county's Rainy Day, or Budget Stabilization, Fund.

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