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County Council, October 19

Initial steps to buy new helicopter for Sheriff’s Department
Parkers Ferry Overlay approved but some dissent
Warwick Jones

Two items took up most of the time in yesterday’s sessions – the purchase of a helicopter for the Sheriff’s Department, and the approval of the Parkers Ferry Overlay. Both items were passed by the respective Committees but there was dissent. The items will now move to the Finance Committee for consideration.

The Sheriff’s Department has two helicopters though only one is functional. The other is essentially a source of parts. Both were military surplus and are Bell OH58 models. Both are old and the functional model is 47 years of age. Council was told that effectively, the functional model has come to the end of its life. Maintenance costs are high, it is difficult to obtain parts because of the age, and there are increasing issues over safety.

The Department is seeking approval to buy a used helicopter. It is a Bell 407 GX model, 3 years old, with 3300 hours on the clock. It is the County’s for $3.7 million, and maybe only $3.5 million. The asking price compares with $5.6 million for a new model. And the new model would cost even more when equipped with necessary law enforcement equipment.

Council member Darby asked why not go for the new model considering its longevity and importance. It seemed that other members of Council preferred the used option and the lower cost but they may have also been moved by the 12 to 18 month wait for a delivery. There was discussion as to funding and staff said funds would come from bond issues in 2019 or 2021. Interim financing was discussed but we are unsure of the conclusion.

Council was also told of the abilities of the new aircraft compared to the old– if was faster, 161 mph compared with 115 mph, carried more, 2500 lbs compared with 750 lbs, and had a range of 372 miles compared with 220 miles. So if it is so great, why is Palm Beach in Florida selling the unit? Because Palm Beach had to change/upgrade its security services this year in the wake of the election of President Trump. The President maintains a residence in the City.

We thought the presentation to the Committee was persuasive and that if there were an issue, it would
be used versus new. This did not transpire and when it came to the vote on the motion – to finance purchase - only Council Chair Rawl voted against. He did not speak during the discussion and did not reveal reasons for his opposition until the end of the Finance Committee session. And as Council member Darby exclaimed, he wished the Council Chair had joined the discussion because his points seemed valid. Chair Rawl asked staff to provide more information before the next Finance Committee meeting about the annual running and maintenance costs of the aircraft, the access to and use of SLED helicopters, the possibility of using helicopters and personnel of the National Guard, and the reimbursement to the County when helicopters are used outside the County. It seemed Chair Rawl was not convinced of the need for a County owned and operated helicopter. The Committee was told earlier that in 2017 there had been 192 calls for the use of the County helicopter. The reasons varied but the most frequent (10) was to search for missing persons.

We thought the approval of the Parkers Ferry Overlay would pass through Council with ease. It passed but not with ease. Council members Darby, Qualey and Schweers were opposed.

The Overlay has been in the works for some time and was drawn up after many meetings with residents of the Parker Ferry area, staff and some Council members, in particularly, Council member Johnson who represents the area. Residents in the area, mainly African American felt that County zoning was too limiting. The residents were impecunious and needed more flexibility to sell their land to cover costs. They also sought more opportunity for small commercial and retail development.

The Overlay attempted to meet the requests of the residents which amongst other things, allowed greater subdivision opportunities than exist under the present zoning. It was the subdivision opportunities that provoked Council members Schweers and Qualey to vote against the overlay. They thought that although the overlay may alleviate problems in the short term, it could create problems in the longer term. Council member Schweers said he thought the overall plan was good but was surprised that there were some 100 acre parcels that would be able to subdivide into 1 acre lots. This could mean a major subdivision sometime in future – did the Community really want this? Council member Qualey asked as to why Johns Islanders with large lots and restrained by zoning, should not be allowed to subdivide with this precedent.

Council member Darby had a different tack. He noted the decline in land ownership by African Americans over the years. This was a very sad thing he said, and overlay zones such as that proposed encouraged the decline. In consequence, he opposed the overlay.

The Environmental Management Committee was to meet yesterday but the Chair of the Committee, Council member Moody cancelled it. He asked staff to prepare of full description of the issues and proposals to address the issues arising with the planned Material Recovery Facility in North Charleston. As described in reports in the Post and Courier, the original soil sampling of the site was inadequate and construction has been delayed.