Less lucrative drug money seizures lead to loss of sheriff’s helicopter
Get rid of deputies or get rid of a helicopter: That was the choice he had to make, according to Fayette County Sheriff Barry Babb.
“It came down to programs or people. And we chose people,” Babb said.
The elimination by Babb of the Hawk I helicopter as a cost-saving measure in his 2013-2014 proposed budget reflects a fundamental change in a program used to buy and operate the aurcraft.
Babb cited the high cost of operating the helicopter in the face of shrinking federal asset seizure funds used to fund that operation.
Babb said that except for the pilot’s salary which comes from the general fund budget, the operation and upkeep of Hawk I comes from equitable sharing funds, also referred to as federal asset seizure funds from drug busts. Hawk I was purchased with asset seizure funds for $1.7 million and went into service in February 2011.
Total aviation operational costs during the 2010-2011 fiscal year amounted to $228,385, Babb said. Those costs included storage and maintenance, communications and computers, fuel, insurance, parts and repairs and training. Those costs during the 2011-2012 fiscal year totaled $197,472. And so far this fiscal year, as of May 1, the costs totaled $175,819, Babb said.
As for the proposed budget, Babb said Hawk I was the largest item of those he eliminated from the proposed 2013-2014 budget. Of the $500,000 proposed for elimination, Hawk I accounted for approximately $200,000 of that amount.
The funds that went to Hawk I will be used instead to help offset other training that can amount to $200,000 and the maintenance of the $1.27 million computer system purchased two years ago.
The cost of that maintenance will be nearly $117,000 in the coming fiscal year and will increase each year to $143,098 by 2016-2017. Neither the computer system maintenance nor the training are part of the general fund and are paid for by asset seizure funds.
“That’s the main purpose of the asset seizure money, to cover these expenses,” Babb said, adding that the cost totaling more than $110,000 for cell phones and the wireless access system have been moved from the general fund to the asset seizure fund to save jobs.
“Hawk I was the biggest ticket item to cut and it impacted the sheriff’s office the least,” Babb said of the decision that received the recommendation of his management team. “It came down to programs or people. And we chose people.”
And though it is not a general fund item, Babb noted that the asset seizure funds continue to decrease. The total federal asset seizure funds received by the sheriff’s office during 2010-2011 amounted to $2.6 million while the office spent $3.2 million and had a balance of $1.5 million at the end of the year. The decrease continued in 2011-2012, when the sheriff’s office received a total of $600,000 in seizure funds and spent $1.35 million, Babb said. The current balance in the asset seizure account is down to $750,000, Babb added.
So what accounts for the decrease in federal asset seizure funds? Babb said that aside from the reality that it takes years for an agency to get its share, it has become evident that drug dealers and cartels are becoming smarter in the way they operate and, subsequently, avoid capture and the seizure of the cash they carry.
“In the last few years seizures are down nationwide. The dealers and cartels are using more runners so that the amount of money you get in a drug bust is smaller than it used to be,” Babb said. “Beyond that, the large dealers don’t use hard currency as much as they used to. They buy large quantities of things like electronics, things that carry value, to use in place of currency.”
Adding to the mix in terms of decreasing asset seizure dollars, are the increasing costs of agent training and hardware that tends to lower the balance in the asset seizure account, Babb added.
Asset seizure money also pays for the purchase, certification and kennel set-up for K-9 units, while the ongoing maintenance, medical expenses and food is a general fund item, Babb noted.
Having made the decision to eliminate three of the units, Babb said those officers had already vacated those positions for other assignments. One of the dogs is currently undergoing medical treatment at Auburn University, though Auburn is helping defray that expense, Babb added.
Babb said that while he expects to receive additional asset seizure funds in the future, the time had come to eliminate costly programs and use the currently shrinking asset seizure account for budget items that do not fall under the county’s general fund.