MADERA COUNTY — The Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 today to approve the acquisition of a Cessna 172 for the Madera County Sheriff’s Office.
There will be no cost to the County to acquire the plane, which is being offered to the S.O. by the Merced County Sheriff’s Office, who used it for nearly 11 years.
It is estimated that annual expenses for the plane will run about $10,000 – with routine maintenance at about $3,000 to $5,000 a year, and insurance costing around $5,000 annually.
The aircraft is a 1985 airframe with a 180 hp engine, and is reported to be in excellent condition.
Sheriff Jay Varney and Commander Tyson Pogue told the Board that there will be a significant cost initially as the plane is due for a major engine overhaul, which is required every 2,000 hours. Sheriff Varney estimates the aircraft will not need to be overhauled for another 10 years once the work is done, as he anticipates usage at about 200 hours per year. The engine work is estimated at $35,000 – $40,000.
Another associated cost is $105 a month to house the plane in a hangar at the Madera Airport, which is right across the road from the Sheriff’s Office.
The aircraft is already set up with radios and other equipment used by the Merced County S.O., saving about $40,000 in the cost of outfitting the plane.
Cmdr. Pogue told the Board that having the plane as one of the tools at their disposal would provide far greater safety to deputies and the public by mitigating the inherent dangers of ground pursuits and the associated liability to the County. It would also be very valuable in assisting in locating missing children and disoriented elderly, SWAT and patrol support, marijuana eradication operations and Search & Rescue missions.
During disasters, the aircraft could be put into service facilitating damage assessments, and enhance overall situational awareness for County officials and Incident Management Teams.
Pilot staffing costs would be minimal, said Pogue, as they plan to use licensed volunteer pilots with deputies as observers, and then train deputies over a 4 – 6 month period. Personnel may acquire overtime depending on the mission requirements, he said, but that will be funded out of the existing overtime budget or grant funds.
“The Cessna 172 is fixed pitch prop aircraft, and is very low maintenance,” said Cmdr. Pogue. “It’s the most cost-effective option.”
Several supervisors asked what would happen if, down the road, the County decided they no longer wished to fund the airplane. The Sheriff’s Office would then look for another agency to take possession of the plane, or it would be returned to the federal government, said Sheriff Varney.
Supervisor Tom Wheeler questioned the expense, asking, “Do we need a plane? How often do we need a plane? It sounds like a big expense for something we don’t need very often, with the cost of storage, upkeep, tires, insurance and training.”
Sheriff Varney referenced the expenses involved when his office has to request aircraft from other agencies, saying that those dollars could be directed toward the annual expenses of the Cessna. Those savings would only apply where a fixed-wing can be used; helicopter operations would still require cooperation with outside agencies.
Supervisor David Rogers noted that the most expensive part of this type of program is the capital investment needed to acquire the equipment, “and we’re getting that for free. I think anything that increases the ability to enforce the law and protect our citizens is a good investment. We need to be investing in public safety, that’s our number one priority, and I’m heartily in favor of this.”
After some consideration, Supervisor Max Rodriguez agreed.
“We have a growing county, a growing population, and now we have high-speed rail coming through,” said Rodriguez. “At first I had my doubts, but things are becoming more complex in our county to police properly, and we need to continue to modernize the Sheriff’s department.”
Supervisor Brett Frazier made the motion to approve the expenditure, saying “I think the benefit to the Sheriff’s Office and the people of Madera County outweighs the other costs.”
The Board voted 4-1 in favor, with Supervisor Tom Wheeler voting against.
“I don’t see us as a small county needing an airplane,’ said Wheeler. “I think you guys [the Sheriff’s Office] do a hellava job, but I don’t think we’re ready for an airplane. I know how expensive they are.”