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Back into the sky

The Springs gets over its helicopter issue with help from new city manager


City helicopters will start making the rounds again in March. - COURTESY CSPD
  • Courtesy CSPD
  • City helicopters will start making the rounds again in March.

After griping, questioning and self-congratulation, Colorado Springs City Council voted 8-1 Monday to reinstate the police helicopter program for 2008.

The decision came upon a recommendation from Police Chief Richard Myers who a couple months before had first posited the controversial idea of axing the program to trim the city's skintight budget. Virtually everyone seems to now agree that helicopters are important; according to Myers, a single helicopter has the response capabilities of eight to 10 patrol cars.

Perhaps as important: The budget folks will keep them aloft without killing street lights, or cutting elsewhere.

The consensus: Great! And, by the way, um, after all the fuss of the past few months, how'd we get here?

To answer that question, look no further than the newly arrived city manager, Penny Culbreth-Graft. She was about the only silent one Monday, but was likely the most important player in this episode.

"I did have a different perspective about the helicopter unit," she says.

That's because in her previous job at Huntington Beach, Calif., choppers were valuable assets. Three of them patrol that city (with its 11 million annual beach tourists), and leaders there felt air support was vital. Culbreth-Graft, naturally, thought the same might be true here.

So she instructed the police department to create a report detailing why we need our copters.

Turns out the unit has flown 11,674 hours since 1996, responding to 26,894 calls for service and sharing responsibility for 2,641 arrests. Studies have shown teams that include air support and ground units have a much higher felony arrest rate.

The report also listed specific incidents when helicopters helped, as when the Air Unit checked the New Life Church roof during the tragic December shootings. Also, in November, a helicopter hovered over a suspect, causing him to abandon his knife-wielding chase of a woman (in an attempted rape) from a bus stop at the Citadel Mall. That suspect was caught and later charged with other rapes.

"I believe you have to make the business case," Culbreth-Graft says, "and you have to do it with hard-hitting facts and data."

About the money: That came from shrinking the request from $489,409 and 1,100 flight hours to $359,700 and 725 hours, the approximate amount flown last year. Also, some funding will come from gifts, leftover funds from the 2007 helicopter budget and Utilities paying a portion, since helicopters monitor its facilities.

In December, then-interim city manager Mike Anderson had suggested freeing the money by turning off 8,510 streetlights or reducing already-delayed capital improvement projects, among other options.

Culbreth-Graft notes that Anderson didn't have the options she did. Most gift funds, she says, came only weeks ago. And the budget department only recently identified 2007 budget surpluses.

Still, the net effect was dramatic, since Council had heard the copters were possibly unsafe and a money pit for maintenance. Councilor Tom Gallagher said the helicopters are noisy nuisances that people in his neighborhood call "ghetto birds." But now, knowing how many lives they save, he says he'd never support grounding them.

"This was a recommendation that steered us wrong," he told Myers coolly.

Jan Martin, the lone dissenter, preferred to buy a new chopper in '09 instead of funding maintenance.

The helicopters are expected back in the air by March 1.

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