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Sonoma Sheriff targets Valley substation, Henry 1 for cuts

One of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office most visible programs may be the Henry 1 helicopter search-and-rescue operations. Videos published on the Sheriff’s Facebook page — of drop-line rescues from offshore islands or remote hiking trails — are dramatic and always seem to have a happy ending: the rescue of a hiker with a twisted knee or a swimmer who gets too far off shore.

But this program is at risk of being canceled this fall if the budget cuts proposed by the Sheriff’s Office are adopted by the Board of Supervisors — along with a similarly valuable boots-on-the-ground program to maintain a county sheriff’s “substation” in El Verano, and another one in Guerneville.

Combined, eliminating the programs would go a long way toward meeting the office’s goal of finding $14 million in savings from the $184 million from the 2020-2021 budget as requested by the Board of Supervisors as a way at balance the books in light of reduced county income and additional expenses due to the coronavirus crisis.

While the supervisors have asked county officials to fill a budget gap that represents 2.4 percent of the county’s $1.9 billion budget, the largest cuts come from the Sheriff’s Office. The supervisors approved a recommended budget in June to allow county departments to keep functioning, but the cuts — largely reductions in staffing — must be approved by the supervisors in September before a final budget document is implemented.

“The board is now asking the sheriff to cut $14.2 million from our budget,” Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Misti Wood told the Index-Tribune. “Unfortunately, this magnitude of cuts combined with an already lean staff means the community will feel the negative impact of these budget cuts.”

Substations on the chopping block

Shutting down the Valley and River substations would have the effect of reducing response time and active patrols, Wood said, though the Sheriff’s Office promises that law enforcement will continue 24/7. The Valley Substation has a staff the equivalent of six full-time positions, the River substation of five; shutting them would save about $1.5 million each.

Perhaps the most noticeable effect would be the loss of a Community Service Officer, or CSO, who is available at the substation during regular business hours to deal with public complaints and information. Wood said, “Overall, you can expect increased response time and a decrease in proactive community policing and engaging. That’s not just for the sub,” she added, but “for this office as a whole.”

“What’s proposed in the budget is losing a deputy position,” she said, whose duties must be carried by other staff, leading to an increase in overtime in personnel costs.

If the proposal to shutter the substations is accepted, “at minimum, doors are closed and it’s not maintained anymore,” said Wood. The buildings — the one in El Verano is at 810 B Grove St., in Guerneville at First and Church streets — are county property, and may need to be sold.

In addition to the substation staff reductions, the Sheriff’s Office cut four full-time support staff positions at the Main Adult Detention Facility (county jail), reductions of almost half a million dollars ($446,030).

Helicopter services at risk

The Henry 1 program was initiated in the 1960s, when Sgt. Ed Wilkinson used his own helicopter on patrol. That aircraft was destroyed in a 1964 accident, and Wilkinson lost his own life when a replacement chopper crashed in 1977, returning to the airport after searching for a lost child (according to information at sonomasheriff.org).

A series of “Henry” helicopters have been used over the past 45 years, including the latest, a new Bell 407 GXP with enhanced avionics, engine and mission equipment, put into service just two years ago. It cost the county $5.1 million, including additional equipment.

Henry 1 logged 942 calls for service in the fiscal year 2016-17, according to press reports. A crew of at least three is usually employed on a service call — a pilot, a deputy and sergeant, and usually EMT personnel. But there are only four full-time employees in the Henry 1 (or H-1) program, and an overall budget of $2.2 million, according to Wood.

Sheriff Mark Essick drew fire earlier this year when he had Henry 1 drop in to a private Super Bowl party at Jordan Vineyard and Winery, where they stayed for about an hour answering questions about the aircraft. The department said the crew was on duty and still able to respond to calls.

And not everyone thinks the sheriff’s offer to sacrifice the program is made entirely in good faith. Jerry Threet, the former director of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (IOLERO), said the program has been floated for shutdown before, but saved by a public outpouring of support.

Henry 1 rescue operation at Goat Rock, Sonoma County.
Henry 1 rescue operation at Goat Rock, Sonoma County.

“Let’s be clear,” he posted on Facebook. “It is the Sheriff who proposed cutting Henry 1. It is inappropriate for the Sheriff and his staff to play these kinds of political games to prevent cuts to their budget, especially when their success in that effort will result in greater cuts to the social services agencies that prevent people from ending up in the criminal justice system.”

He implied that the many video posts on the Sheriff’s page were intentionally posted to encourage support of the program.

The services offered by the Henry 1 program are not just rescue of hikers in over their heads, but include law enforcement air-borne assistance of fleeing suspects, locating suspects (by infrared surveillance) who are attempting to hide, safety patrol, and fire control – the aircraft can carry a 150-gallon bucket to fill with water from a handy lake, pond or pool which is then released over a fire.

H-1 is a county-financed, public program, unlike the red REACH helicopter, run by the private company REACH Air Medical Services which provides emergency air transport for 911 requests and patient transfers between hospitals – essentially an air ambulance.

“If there were a way to charge for services, we would have found it by now.” Misti Wood, SCSO

Although insurance companies and individuals usually pay for the air ambulance, there is no charge for a helicopter rescue from the Sheriff’s Office, a question that comes up every time an inattentive hiker gets isolated by rising tide. According to Wood, “We can’t impose fees. There have been lots of conversations about it, but we are not able to do that.”

Though Wood said, “The government code prevents us from charging for individual rescues,” she could not cite specific sections of the government code that forbade it. However, there does appear to be a section of the code that would allow the county government to charge the rescued party, but only if that party’s rescue “necessitated the use of extraordinary methods and was caused by an intentional act in knowing violation of any federal or state law or local ordinance,” and that person was criminally convicted.

Wood repeated, “If there were a way to charge for services, we would have found it by now.”

At present, the Henry 1 helicopter is based out of Sonoma County Airport, outside of Santa Rosa. If it is sacrificed to stresses of budget constraints, it would mark the end of a well-known, albeit expensive program.

Budget negotiations continue at this point, with final numbers expected in September. Requests for clarification to Susan Gorin, chair of the county Board of Supervisors, were not received by press time.

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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