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New Hourly Rate Will Cut Helicopter Fees in 4 Cities

January 08, 1989|MARY LOU FULTON | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, responding to complaints that its helicopter service was too expensive, has set a new rate that would cut the annual price tag in half for four Southeast cities.

Instead of paying an annual fee of up to $140,000 each, the cities last week began paying for helicopter service at an hourly rate of $405.

"It's really an innovative approach to handling the situation," Pico Rivera City Manager Dennis Courtemarche said. "I think it's great."

Pico Rivera, Santa Fe Springs, La Mirada, Norwalk and the San Gabriel Valley city of South El Monte were paying the Sheriff's Department from $45,000 to $140,000 annually for helicopter service. The department uses helicopters most often to assist sheriff's patrols involved in pursuit situations, such as car chases or tracking a suspect fleeing on foot.

Used to Pay Annual Fee

Under the old system, cities paid an annual fee to cover all helicopter service. Under the new fee system, the county will pay for all helicopter responses related to life-threatening emergencies, while cities will pay $405 an hour for other emergency calls or for routine patrol of a problem area. The Sheriff's Department will eliminate regular helicopter patrols provided under the old system.

Based on the number of emergency responses the cities have required during the last few years, the Sheriff's Department has calculated that the cities' costs will be reduced by at least 50%--and perhaps as much as 75%.

"It's outstanding," La Mirada City Manager Gary Sloan said. "How can anyone be against saving 50% of your annual expense and retaining almost the same service?"

The pressure to reform helicopter service began last summer, when cities were reviewing annual budgets.

Cities' Fees Listed

The annual fee in Pico Rivera would have been about $100,000 for helicopter service. "We could not afford it anymore," Courtemarche said.

Norwalk faced a fee of $138,400 for helicopter service; La Mirada, $75,200; Santa Fe Springs, $87,800, and South El Monte, $45,200. "We weren't convinced it was worth" $87,800 a year, said Fred Latham, assistant city manager of Santa Fe Springs.

The program probably would have been discontinued if one of the cities backed out of the cooperative, because the remaining cities would not have been able to afford to pay a greater share of the costs.

So the cities struck an agreement to keep paying for the helicopter service for six months with the understanding that the department would revise the service and fees by the end of 1988. Sheriff's officials presented their proposal to the cities a few months later, and the new fee schedule began Jan. 1.

"Part of it is savings," Latham said, "but the more significant part is that it's a more effective and efficient way of providing service."

The Sheriff's Department plans on offering the hourly helicopter service to every city in the county, Capt. Bill Mangen said. The lower cost means that more Southeast cities may be able to afford helicopter patrols.

The department has divided the county into four regions, over which a helicopter will patrol nearly around the clock, Mangen said. No Sheriff's Department employees will be laid off because of the new billing system, he said.

In fiscal 1988-89, the helicopter patrol program is costing the Sheriff's Department an estimated $833,000. The largest share of the cost, $386,400, is to be paid by Los Angeles County, with participating cities paying for the rest, a Sheriff's Department spokesman said. The department came up with the $405 hourly rate by dividing the number of flying hours last year by the annual cost of the program, Mangen said.

Previously, helicopter service fees were based on the number of square miles patrolled and the rate of major felonies reported in the area. Major felonies include murder, assault, rape, and robbery.

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