By Robert Vitale
The Columbus Dispatch
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The city budget runs through February, but Columbus has only enough money to keep its police helicopters in the air through mid-October.
Safety Director Mitchell Brown has ordered the Division of Police to cut the number of hours it watches the city from above. Stretching city dollars to cope with an 80 percent increase in helicopter-fuel costs could mean seven hours of daily patrols instead of the current 16.
"The city is not unlike families who are faced with escalating fuel costs and limited budgets," Brown said in a memo to Chief James G. Jackson. "We must live within our means and maximize the resources with which we are blessed."
Lt. Michael Elkins, who heads the five-helicopter, 23-pilot police unit, will submit a plan as Jackson's response to the directive, police spokeswoman Amanda Ford said.
Brown told Jackson that cuts shouldn't ground helicopters during the times they're needed most, and pilots should be reassigned to other duties but allowed to log enough flight time to maintain their licenses.
It's the latest in a series of directives indicating a city budget crunch so severe that police and fire services are no longer immune to cutbacks.
The city Public Safety Department's spending has increased under Mayor Michael B. Coleman and now consumes 71 cents of every general-fund dollar. But Coleman ordered the department in May to rein in police and fire overtime, and administration officials said this week that they're considering canceling both divisions' recruit classes scheduled to begin in December.
City Auditor Hugh J. Dorrian has warned that Columbus faces a $75 million deficit in 2009, based on rising costs and stagnant tax collections. Coleman said he's considering a number of midyear savings. Although it's not at the top of his list, he wouldn't rule out laying off city employees.
"Anything we can save this year impacts next year," the mayor said.
Helicopter fuel has jumped from an average price of $2.36 a gallon in 2007 to $4.25 a gallon today. The helicopters burn 25 gallons each hour, so the fuel increase costs the city an extra $756 daily.
Jim Gilbert, a Columbus police sergeant who's also president of the Fraternal Order of Police Capital City Lodge No. 9, said helicopters are able to accomplish from above what it would take more officers to do on the ground.
Helicopters fly on regular patrols but also are called in to search for suspects. Pilots helped catch 12 scattering youths in October after four people were beaten and robbed in Schiller Park in German Village.
Columbus has a bigger helicopter fleet than most cities. Five years ago, New York police officials pointed to Columbus as an example of what their city needed.
The $174,000 left for fuel would run out Oct. 18 if prices and patrols stay at their current levels. Deputy Safety Director George Speaks said Brown insists that the Police Division not go over-budget on fuel.
"We're looking at less hours now so we're able to look at continued service throughout the year," he said.
Copyright 2008 The Columbus Dispatch