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Santa Barbara County Supervisors OK Donation to Air Support Unit

A large donation from a nonprofit organization to the Air Support Unit, which had raised concerns from Santa Barbara County's auditor-controller earlier this year, was approved Tuesday by the county Board of Supervisors.

The board voted unanimously to accept donations of $826,065 from a group called Project Rescue Flight, which raises money to keep the county's Aviation Support Unit, which is home to five helicopters, operating at its best.

The helicopters are used for search-and-rescue operations throughout the county, as well as for firefighting and law-enforcement operations.

About $307,556 of the money was raised in 2013-14 for maintenance and improvements to four helicopters.

Another $500,000 was raised in 2014 to make upgrades to Copter 4, including more than $300,000 for an external rescue hoist.

Last month, concern about approving the donation was raised when the county's auditor pointed out that the donations were for previous years, and that a majority of Project Rescue Flight's board members were employees of the county.

The organization is also primarily funded by one private foundation, which has not been listed on its IRS 990 forms for the last three years, according to documents on Guidestar.

Noozhawk has requested copies of document listing funders from the organization, but has not received them as of Tuesday.

Supervisor Peter Adam was the first to speak on the item on Tuesday, and said that he knew where the donations had come from because he had spoken to Sheriff Bill Brown previously, but still said he felt that anonymous donations were "troubling."

"It's just bad policy not to tell people who's funding their government," he said, adding that he didn't like having to approve a donation after the work had already been done.

"We have no choice but to accept," he said.

County Controller-Auditor Bob Geis said staff from his office had met with members of the nonprofit groups and the Sheriff's Department, and had a productive meeting.

As for the board's makeup, "We would prefer that there be no county employees," but that the board had changed its makeup from four county employees and two civilian employees to three county employees, three community members, and one ex-officio member, Geis said.

"They've committed to work with us," Geis said of the organization.

Brown also said that he's confident changes have been put in place changes that will allow donations to be accepted before any work is done.

Brown said the organization receives much of its funding from a foundation "which is well known but has asked to not be in the spotlight."

Brown also reminded the board that Project Rescue Flight was formed because the county did not have the resources to invest in the maintenance and upkeep of an air unit.

"It has greatly benefited not only the Sheriffs Office but every resident in this county," he said.

Supervisor Doreen Farr asked if the new makeup of the board satisfied the county's attorney, Michael Gizzoni, to which he replied, "I believe the structure going forward is proper."

In addition to approving the donation, the supervisors also voted to bring the county's donation policy back for discussion at a future date.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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