Despite disagreement on the downpayment, the Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved a procurement plan for the newest and largest helicopter to be added to the Riverside County sheriff’s fleet.
Sheriff Chad Bianco’s request to acquire a twin-engine Airbus H145 was approved by the board in June, but financing arrangements — and a final price tag — had not been established.
According to sheriff’s officials, the previously estimated amount of $11.5 million was short just over a million bucks. The price negotiated with Airbus Helicopters Inc., including taxes, came to $12.52 million.
Board Chairman Kevin Jeffries questioned the need to finance the entire sum through a bank loan, echoing initial concerns expressed by Bianco in June, when he asked to cover the entire cost using funds unspent from the sheriff’s 2018-19 general fund allocations.
Jeffries pointed out that “unanticipated” property tax gains made more funding available that could be applied toward the rotorcraft acquisition.
“We’ve got extra revenue coming in, so we should consider an outright purchase, or a higher downpayment,” the chairman said, noting that taxpayers, in the long run, would be paying more for the helicopter than necessary via financing.
County Chief Executive Officer George Johnson stood by his original request to finance the procurement, entirely, from a 10-year loan with an interest rate of just over 2 percent.
“From our perspective, this is better money management,” Johnson said. “It allows us to protect our cash (reserve) and gives us the flexibility to respond to sudden cost increases. We are facing additional costs associated with labor contracts that we’re negotiating.”
Supervisors Manuel Perez, Chuck Washington and Karen Spiegel agreed. However, the latter proposed at least paying the roughly $900,000 in sales taxes tied to the acquisition to remove that portion from the financing agreement.
That procurement plan was approved 3-1, with Jeffries opposed and Supervisor Jeff Hewitt away on personal business.
Bianco’s staff said the aviation unit had examined a number of prospects, including choppers manufactured by Bell, Leonardo and MD Helicopters, but in the end, the H145 was the obvious choice, based on the department’s eight pilots’ familiarity and comfort with the single-engine Airbus Astar AS350s already in use.
“The pilots are familiar with the control panel, equipment and performance of the aircraft, and maintaining the same type of fleet is advantageous, especially when the pilot needs to make a quick decision during an emergency,” according to a sheriff’s statement. “Additionally, the department has invested substantially in Airbus inventory parts to keep the Airbus fleet in operation, and staying with the same manufacture will allow the department to utilize the same inventory.”
What’s more, all of the agency’s aircraft mechanics are certified to provide routine maintenance on Airbus models, officials said.
During the board’s June 25 meeting, Bianco made a case for the new chopper by highlighting its ability to reach a higher altitude, or service ceiling, during search-and-rescue and other operations, compared to the helicopters currently on hand. The H145 can also haul eight people, whereas the smaller AS350s carry four, officials noted.
“It will allow us to perform rescues in the mountains and perform tactical rescues, if needed. Every other agency has a helicopter capable of these kinds of things,” Bianco told the board.