Lee County Sheriff chopper flying to meetings?

Lee County Sheriff chopper flying to meetings?

By Matt Grant. CREATED Feb 6, 2012

FORT MYERS -  From flying to meetings to "public relations," the Lee County Sheriff's helicopter is being used for more than just catching criminals.

It's the eye in the sky catching crooks on the ground. Dangerous men like accused murderer Timothy Tuttle. Tuttle was captured with the help of hi-tech infrared cameras that make it very hard to hide.

"So this thing is a criminal on the ground's worst nightmare?," asked Fox 4 reporter Matt Grant.

"Yes sir," said Lee County Sheriff's office pilot Mike Warner pointing to their FLIR camera. "They don't like this"

Warner is the pilot who helped take down Tuttle. He's been with the sheriff's office almost 5 years but has been flying most of his life.

"A great deal of satisfaction comes from knowing that you're helping to protect the citizens of Lee County," said Warner.

But how much are you paying for that protection? Fox 4 looked through flight logs for FY 2011 (10/1/10-9/30/11). We discovered the county's two choppers flew 894 hours totaling $576,122 in operation costs - things like fuel and maintenance.

Add on $621,246 for pilot and mechanic salaries and you paid $1,197,368.

"Is that a lot of money? Yes," said Warner. "Is the bang worth the buck? I think so."

The sheriff's office flies an AStar 350, which Warner says is used by 60-65 percent of all law enforcement agencies in the U.S.

According to Warner, the average cost of operating the chopper for the last four years was $954,000. This year was slightly higher due to several expensive parts needing to be replaced.

"Instead of risk flying with them," said Warner, "we went ahead and replaced those components."

Documents show the chopper was responsible for 170 arrests, 38 missing people found and 13 stolen cars recovered during FY11.

But we discovered it was also used to fly from Buckingham Air Field in Lehigh Acres to the sheriff's headquarters in Fort Myers for staff meetings.

"Is that really efficient to fly to a meeting instead of driving to one?," asked Grant.

"No," said Warner. "But the cost would be about 2 tenths of an hour total to be able to get down there and do that."

The sheriff's office spent $11,076, clocking 17 hours on similar "administrative flights."

"Again we're just as effective as launching from" the sheriff's office, said Warner, compared to the air field.

Documents show you're also paying to promote the sheriff's office. During FY11 the sheriff's office spent 11 hours showing off the chopper at schools, air shows and fly-overs costing $7,212.

Between public relations and administrative flights, we found $18,288 was spent on things that don't directly appear to have anything to do with catching crooks.

"At a time when everyone's tightening their belts can you justify that?," asked Grant.

"Well I think it's important for the public to understand not only our mission but the fact that our desire is to keep them safe," said Warner.

"But we're talking about non-law enforcement related flights," said Grant.

"Right," said Warner. "So as I pointed out to you, in my opinion, I would think that it's important to go out and talk to school children."

But it's not just children. According to flight logs, politicians and officials have gone up to survey land, learn about the chopper and get an aerial tour.

Warner says they strive to save money wherever they can. He points out they buy fuel at a discount from Mosquito Control, which saves money buying in bulk.

"It's our responsibility to operate as safely and as efficiently as we can," said Warner. "And so we strive to do so."

Collier County

It is hard to compare Collier, Charlotte and Lee since they have different helicopters, population sizes and number of flights.

Unlike Lee County, Collier uses military surplus helicopters. In FY11 (11/01/10-11/01/11) they flew 522 flights (668 hours), compared to 1097 for Lee County (894 hours). 

Collier spent $54,093 for fuel and $182,708 for fuel and maintenance combined compared to $576,122 for Lee County.

They also spent 4 hours on administrative flights and 3 hours on "static displays" (at schools, etc) costing taxpayers $2,462 compared to $18,288 for Lee County (for administrative and public relation flights).

Collier spent $331,875 combined on four pilot salaries.

The chopper costs $276 an hour to fly.

Charlotte County

During FY11 (12/1/10-12/1/11) Charlotte County spent $59,121 on fuel and $133,616 on maintenance for a total of $192,737, compared to $182,708 for Collier and $576,122 for Lee.

Charlotte County has one full time pilot making $93,748 a year and one part time pilot making $27 an hour.

During FY11 the chopper flew on 462 missions. Their OH58 costs $183/hour to fly and their UH1 costs $202 an hour.

Matt Grant