February 15, 2011 | 10:32pm
Led by freshman Republican councilman Jim Righeimer, the Costa Mesa City Council late tonight voted to kill an expensive police-helicopter program to help to resolve a massive budget shortfall.
"We need to do this," Righeimer said before the 4-1 vote. "This program is gushing dollars out of it."
The move effectively halts the Airborne Law Enforcement Program (ABLE) beginning July 1.
But don't fret that the cops won't still be in the sky afterward. The Orange County Sheriff's Department has its own air-support division with planes and helicopters, and Anaheim and Huntington Beach each have three police helicopters. The California Highway Patrol, which has an air base in Fullerton, also floods OC with numerous helicopters and planes each day.
Costa Mesa Mayor Gary Monahan said he thinks ABLE has been largely productive in the past, but he pointed out that "most cities" don't have a police-helicopter program.
"It's a luxury," said Monahan, who noted that his city's budget has dropped from $130 million to $90 million during the current economic woes. "We're in a serious, serious money crunch."
ABLE is a joint-powers authority created by Costa Mesa and Newport Beach. The cities have split the costs of daily helicopter-patrolling shifts to the tune of more than $900,000 per year each. Neighboring Santa Ana also has contributed more than $500,000 in cash and manpower annually for subsidiary service.
At the hearing, residents either hailed the program in glowing terms or called it a "noisy" and "wasteful" use of valuable government resources.
Numerous police officers and city bureaucrats attended the hearing to pressure the council to at least delay the ABLE vote.
Councilwoman Wendy Leece, the only person to vote against Righeimer's recommendation, said, "Yes, it's expensive," but worried about the potential "risks" to citizens by reducing a law-enforcement program.
But pervious budget cuts have forced ABLE, whose helicopters are called "Eagle," to cut its 3,000 annual flying hours in half during the past seven months, and ABLE Commander Tim Starn wasn't able to demonstrate any related rise in serious crime in any of the three cities ABLE patrols.
At one point, Councilman Steve Mensinger asked Starn to explain why more cities don't have police-helicopter programs if they are so valuable.
Starn replied solemnly, "Obviously, the answer is money."
ABLE critics inside Costa Mesa and Newport Beach city halls cringe at the sweet pay packages members of the helicopter crew earn. For example, Starn is paid more than Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who oversees 4,000 employees and has an $800 million budget. His taxpayer-funded compensation package? More than $290,000 per year, according to records reviewed by the Weekly.**
Both Leece, Righeimer and Thomas R. Hatch, the city's new city manager, did seem to agree that Santa Ana officials haven't paid a fair share of ABLE costs. They also wondered why Irvine and most Orange County cities don't routinely help to defray helicopter costs. A public speaker, who urged elimination of ABLE, noted that Irvine is OC's safest city and has no police helicopters.
City officials say they are hoping Hutchens will organize a new regional airborne-law-enforcement program for Orange County in the wake of ABLE's destruction.
**Don't fret about Hutchens' law-enforcement income, either. Government records show that when you add her Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department pension to her OC sheriff's pay, she takes home nearly $500,000 annually in total compensation.
--R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly