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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sequestration’s Offspring

By Ernie Stephens

Months after its implementation, you still can’t go more than a day without hearing about the effects of sequestration – the spanking the federal government took last March when politicians failed to agree upon less painful spending cuts. It was intended to be the same kind of over-the-top threat of punishment a parent makes to get their child to comply with something, while all along expecting that the outrageous consequence will sound so ominous, it will never have to be imposed. But like sometimes happens, the kid (or politicians, in this case) failed to do what was asked, and the crazy punishment that nobody thought would have to be imposed, had to be imposed. The result was “sequestration,” the deep, one-size-fits-all, across-the-board spending cuts that hammered pretty much every U.S. government agency.

In the column that I wrote back when that happened (see “Sequestration Blues,” May 2013), I mentioned that sequestration was forcing the FAA to reduce staffing in the towers of large airports, and close some smaller towers altogether. I promised you back then that I’d wait a few months to see how that would impact airborne law enforcement.

Well, as we already know, the air traffic control system’s brush with sequestration lasted less than a month before it was restored to its former operating budget. (FAA money can return very quickly when enough members of Congress have to wait an hour on the tarmac to be squeezed into an overworked, undermanaged airspace system!) Thank goodness those cuts were so short-lived, police operations dodged any real problems.

But it ain’t over, yet. Sequestration has a nasty, nameless, annoying little offspring.

After 9/11, Homeland Security money rained down on police agencies like so many kisses from your Aunt Martha. (In fact, I’ll bet many of you are currently flying aircraft that federal grant money paid for.) But a dozen years later, the majority of that money is gone.

Next, the housing crash of 2008 and its ripple effects severely crippled the tax base that fuels the public safety machine. It left state and local governments struggling to make ends meet, including within public safety departments.

The latest budgetary blow now comes from the creepy little demon spawn of sequestration, which is the loss of federal support funding for state and local programs, such as road repair, education, and public safety.

With less money coming in, but the same amount of services that need to be provided, governors, county administrators and mayors are really under the gun to cut their budgets. And, as can be expected – and sometimes quite justified – they will be looking toward their police aviation unit for those cuts. So now, more than ever, it’s time for public safety air units to work more efficiently and stretch those dollars as far as they will go before someone else swoops in and makes the same mistakes that sequestration made with the FAA March.

Granted, many police agencies are already running as lean as they possibly can. But that still might not be enough, which leaves just one other option for making the hangar look less appealing to the budget axe, and that is to show unit value. “Show unit value” means doing what the Washington, D.C.-based United States Park Police (USPP) has been doing, especially since last summer.

Chief Teresa Chambers has been singing the praises of her department to just about anyone will listen, and wants the public to know that USSP’s two Bell 214s and Bell 206L carry out a superior job in their police, SAR and medevac roles. She is even hosting a 40th anniversary celebration for the Aviation Division that I’m sure she’s hoping will be picked up by all of the media outlets.

Is publicizing an air unit’s value trickery? Is it some sort of subversive maneuver to outflank public administrators by getting the support of the voting public, first? I don’t think so. It’s simply about educating everyone – citizenry and elected officials alike – about what police helicopters do, and how cost effective they can be at a time when more bang for the buck is needed. Once that message is out there, if the powers that be still feel the need to cut aviation funding, so be it.

Now, in all fairness, there are those who like the out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to avoiding budget cutbacks. The logic is that if you don’t advertise the existence of an aviation unit, the money vultures might fly right past the hangar en route to some other juicy target. I might be onboard with that if this were being discussed in the years prior to 2008. But I don’t think any part of any level of government operation can hide from scrutiny with the money problems that we face now.

After having talking to a lot of Rotor & Wing readers, I think my position is going to remain the same: Assume that your unit will be closely scrutinized for cuts now and several more times over the next couple of years. Then protect it by documenting and publicizing the unit’s worth. Over and over.

 

 

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