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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Paid Advertisement?! On a Police Helicopter?!

By Ernie Stephens

A good friend of mine sent me a news clipping the other day. Basically, the sheriff of a fair-size department is having such a tough time financing his air unit, he has decided to solicit sponsors to help cover the costs of the operation.

Now, if the image of a decal-laden NASCAR vehicle comes to mind, you’re headed in the right direction. Just change the car to a helicopter, and the laundry detergent logo on the hood to, oh, maybe a local grocery store chain, and you’ll be dead on. Because just like Tony Stewart’s #14 Chevy with “Home Depot” emblazoned across the hood, that agency’s helicopter will be a flying billboard for whichever companies take the sheriff up on his offer.

The only reason this news didn’t shock me was because it was not the first time I had heard of such an idea. San Diego Fire Department (SDFD) did the same thing several years ago when they invited area companies and organizations to place logos on the department’s Bell 212, in exchange for a donation toward the then-one ship operation. It worked well, too. They had logos from a medical center, a Native American resort, and a couple of other outfits; not to mention a happy little bundle of cash.

Deputy Chief Brian Fennessey, a lieutenant at the time I met him in 2007, said the sponsorship method was the only option the SDFD had to get their unit up and running—a unit that battles brush fires nearly all year. The deal made some in the SDFD nervous. After all, if the choice has to be made between which fire to work now and which one to work later—and a sponsor’s interest is one of the properties in harm’s way—how will it play out? Will the involved sponsor expect—or subtly demand—priority consideration, and withdraw its support if it doesn’t get it? And if the sponsor legitimately deserves priority, will the “regular citizen” assume money drove that decision?

For the record, I know Fennessey. I’m sure he would never let sponsorship interfere with how the SDFD prioritized its missions. But for every honorable public servant like him, there are plenty who are less honorable, and might very well allow contribution-dollars to cloud their better judgment. (Refer to the politics section of your local newspaper to learn more about money can corrupt decision-making.) The meat and potatoes of this whole method for finding revenue is just another piece of the economic-meltdown pie, especially since things got really ugly back in 2008. The woes of the housing market clobbered the tax base that public services need to operate. Unlike private businesses, which can divest, merge, and do a bunch of other things, government agencies are pretty much limited to cutting costs, raising taxes and selling bonds to make-up for the shortfall.

So, here we have a sheriff, who is wedged between a financial rock and an operational hard place with his helicopter unit. I’m betting he has already reduced staffing to the bare bone, virtually cut out all overtime, and must hold his fleet of patrol cars together with bailing wire. And now, his helicopter operation—which not only patrols, but is needed for search and rescue services in remote areas—could go the way of other units that have had to sell their ships due to lack of funding.

Once all of the discussions, gnashing of teeth, and moaning passes, here is where I land: Trading ad space on a police helicopter for operating cash would be so far down on my list of unit-saving options, you’d skin your knees trying to get low enough to read it. It isn’t that I would feel obligated to give preferential treatment to a sponsor, because I wouldn’t. And if I were an elected unit head, as this sheriff is, I wouldn’t be too worried about outside influence trying to make me do otherwise. I would, however, be concerned if I were an appointed official, who might have to deal with a boss or political figure that might lean on me to play favorites based upon who send in the largest check.

That said, if I were stuck in the unenviable position of having to rely on sponsors to operate my unit, I’d do my best to limit it to those who probably wouldn’t need my services, such as the non-resident providers of my unit’s radio gear, jet fuel, or mission equipment. It would keep my unit from having to face accusations that I gave better police service to a sponsor than to a non-contributor.

So, while I salute that sheriff’s efforts to keep his deputies flying, and don’t blame him for looking for outside sponsors if that’s his last resort, I sure hope it works for him. Air assets are extremely important. Hopefully, he can discontinue the whole sponsorship deal once things get better, as the SDFD was able to do.

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