Panolian Editorial

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 5, 2008

Helicopter quest has merit; better pursued by multiple entities

Word came through Desoto County Sheriff Bill Rasco this week that the sale of an OH-6 helicopter to the Panola County Sheriff’s Department may still survive.

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For the past couple of months Panola County Sheriff Hugh “Shot “ Bright has sought to purchase from Desoto County a used helicopter through funds seized through drug interdiction.

First nixed by the feds, who originally provided the helicopter that is now in DeSoto County, the decision is being reconsidered, Rasco said.

Rasco said that his department took possession of the chopper until the deal is finalized.

That brought to mind a story written by Mark F. Bonner in the Clarion-Ledger last month where Hinds County Sheriff and Jackson Police Chief Malcolm McMillan said of their Metro One helicopter, “It’s a tremendous asset to us in a number of ways.”

Unlike the used OH-6 helicopter that Sheriff Bright wants to purchase with confiscated drug funds for $150,000, the Metro’s eye in the sky is a $750,000 Robinson R44 Raven II helicopter  outfitted with stabilizing binoculars, advanced mapping systems and a 20 million candle power spotlight and infrared thermal imaging.

Also unlike the Panola Sheriffs department’s desired chopper, two counties, Hinds and Madison, contribute to its annual budget along with a number of entities including Jackson, Ridgeland, Madison, and the Ross Barnett Reservoir Patrol. But that amount only covers, 22.8 percent of the annual $525,000 budget according to Metro One operator Andy Robinson.

The rest is covered in private donations from Jim Barksdale, local philanthropist and former president  and CEO of Netscape.

Though there may be no local benefactor ready to contribute to a new helicopter to our county, Sheriff Bright is known as for his “horse trading” abilities, thus locating used one at a price said to be below market value.

While many question the need for a Panola County helicopter, adjoining counties, municipalities and other government entities in close proximity might make the sheriff’s desires plausible.

A consortium, say, of half-a-dozen or so entities sharing the cost might be an idea. That group could include adjacent counties, municipalities or other government entities such as the Corps of Engineers operations at Enid, Sardis, Grenada and Arkabutla Lakes, and the University of Mississippi sharing a helicopter for search and rescue, fugitive apprehension and other emergencies.

Sharing might make the effort more digestible, and more importantly, more affordable. There is also a possibility of government grants and loans.

Newly elected U.S. Rep. Travis Childers, speaking to a group of supporters and urging them to join with other entities in their area when applying for loans,  grants and legislation, explained how he would more easily support a “multi-entity” project over a single-entity project.

The idea of an “eye in the sky” is good.

The question is, “Is it affordable?”

Property-tax-paying Panolians receiving tax notices this week will probably think its a good idea to rent or borrow that eye in the sky unless or until a multi-entity plan is forthcoming.