A seemingly routine donation raised some eyebrows among county supervisors last week, after they were asked to approve an $826,000 donation from a nonprofit that raises money to maintain and upgrade helicopters used for search and rescue and law enforcement efforts in the county.
The supervisors were asked to approve $826,065 in donations that were raised by a nonprofit 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 in Santa Barbara’s back and front country, a large role in firefighting efforts in the county, as well as for law enforcement operations, including recent marijuana camp cleanups in the Los Padres National Forest.
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.
The organization has donated millions of dollars to the Aviation Support Unit for years, but the size of the donation as well as the fact that it was split over multiple years raised some concern from Santa Barbara County Auditor Bob Geis.
The makeup of the board was also a concern to Geis, and he said staff had noticed three of the boardmembers Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department employees.
“That’s a significant issue in our eyes,” he told the Board of Supervisors.
Noozhawk has confirmed that four of the six boardmembers are SBSO employees.
The donations being reported after the books were “closed” for a given year was concerning to him, as departments are to bring those numbers forward every quarter.
Supervisor Doreen Farr said the size of the donation made her “nervous” and questioned whether it was sustainable to depend on private donations to keep the unit operating.
After Supervisor Peter Adam asked Geis whether he should vote to approve the donation, Geis said that while the county shouldn’t turn away a gift, more research needed to be done.
“We don’t want to kill that goose, but we want to make sure these expenditures are on the county books,” he told the supervisors, adding that “we really should revisit how this nonprofit is working.”
The supervisors ultimately voted to revisit the donation at their Feb. 17 meeting.
Geis told Noozhawk that his biggest concern was that the board of Project Rescue Flight is made up of a majority of Sheriff’s Department employees.
“You want their board of directors to be independent from the supervisors and department heads,” Geis said.
Sheriff Bill Brown said his department is working with the auditor’s office to establish a mechanism to have the board accept the awards in a more timely manner and maintained that the organization is completely independent from the department.
“Project Rescue Flight was established by two of our deputies on their own time. Its board also includes civilians,” he said. “Per its charter, it exists and raises funds solely for county aviation, so we do not feel there are any issues or conflicts re: independence.
“We were trying to rectify a few donations for work done by PRF that we hadn’t reported in a timely manner at the same time we sought approval for the current donation. The Controllers Office was upset — understandably — because the books had been closed and will have to be reopened,” he said, adding that Brown’s and Geis’ staff would be meeting to resolve the donations.
The organization’s 990 Form states that the group’s mission is “to assist the Sheriff’s Department of the County of Santa Barbara to fulfill their duties and responsibilities, by providing airborne law enforcement and and search and rescue capabilities” and to raise monies for maintenance and replacement of the rescue helicopters.
Project Rescue Flight board president Gregg Weitzman, who also works for the Sheriff’s Department as a pilot in the Aviation Support Unit, sat down with Noozhawk last week to talk about the foundation. The Aviation Support Unit was formed in 1996, and Weitzman recalled going to the Board of Supervisors in 1999 to ask that they begin setting aside money for the helicopters, which had previously be coming from the Sheriff’s Council.
“They said, ‘We don’t have the cash so you’re going to have to think outside the box,’” Weitzman said of the county.
The nonprofit was established in 2000, and yes, Weitzman said, four of the board members are current employees of the Sheriff’s Department.
“Our attorneys said there was no conflict,” he said.
Four of the board members are Weitzman, Jon Simon, Michael Arend, Adam Reichick, all full-time employees of the Aviation Support Unit, and two of the board’s members are civilians, not employed by the department.
They are Jon Wilczak of the Sheriff’s Benevolent Posse and James Cameron, Weitzman said.
Weitzman said the group gets most of its funding from a local non-profit “that wants to remain anonymous,” and he estimates Project Rescue Flight has raised $3 million since its formation.
“We’ve informed the department of everything we’ve done,” he said. “There are no secrets.”
Since the nonprofit was formed, the unit has obtained five helicopters, three of which are currently in service.
The helicopters are used Army aircraft that had to be rebuilt and require constant maintenance; 100 percent of what is raised goes towards the aircraft, he said.
The Project Rescue Flight board decides together what to spend the money on, Weitzman said.
“We have the expertise,” he said. “We know what we need.”
Some of the costs that went before the board last Tuesday went toward putting an external hoist on Copter 4, which is a safer way to lift people into the air during a rescue.
Before the helicopters were introduced, search and rescue crews would hike in on foot and search for a person solely by ground, without any air support.
“The hoist can make a one-day rescue operation into a 10-minute one,” he said.
It was also spent on aerodynamics for the tail boom of the helicopter.
Three helicopters got new paint jobs, “and that was $100,000 right there,” he said.
Whether the Aviation Support Unit would be self-sustaining without Project Rescue Flight, “that’s the big question,” he said.
For now, Weitzman said the organization will continue working to keep the helicopters running and conducting operations in the county.
“We want the best equipment to make things safer for us and the community,” he said.