Eighteen months after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake voted to approve the purchase of four new helicopters for the Police Department, her proposed budget called for grounding one of them in a cost-saving move.
But within days, the administration reversed course and said Thursday it intends to keep all four choppers flying in the unit known as Foxtrot. Police likely will have to find the projected $1 million in savings elsewhere in their budget.
It is unclear how the cut became part of the proposed budget, which was unveiled last week. City officials stressed the proposal was preliminary. Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for the mayor, said "closer examination determined that the projected savings may not be realistic."
O'Doherty said police will be asked to review the aviation unit for "future efficiencies and potential cost savings."
According to Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts' chief of staff, Judy Pal, the cut might have grown out of confusion around concerns Batts raised about whether the city had purchased the right kind of helicopters. Pal said Batts also questioned the wisdom of replacing the entire fleet at the same time.
"Most agencies will spread those purchases out," Pal said. "You replace them on an ad hoc basis as opposed to having to replace all four."
The old EC120 helicopters were purchased together more than a decade ago, and by 2011 were nearing the end of their operational lives. Police officials said one of the four helicopters had recorded the highest number of flight hours for its type in the world.
In September 2011, the city's Board of Estimates — of which Rawlings-Blake is a voting member — approved the $9.5 million purchase of new helicopters from American Eurocopter. They began flying missions a year later with state-of-the-art surveillance tools.
Batts, previously police chief in Long Beach and Oakland, Calif., declined to answer questions Thursday about the helicopters. City records show officials did not seek competitive bids for the aircraft.
In the Board of Estimates agenda, purchasing officials wrote that the new EC120B helicopters were the only ones compatible with the parts and maintenance equipment the city already owns, and would eliminate the need to replace that inventory. The pilots, crew members and maintenance personnel were qualified to maintain the Eurocopters and would not require retraining.
When it bought the earlier helicopters in 2001, the city solicited bids only from Texas-based American Eurocopter.
The Foxtrot unit has been sidelined before. The fleet was grounded in 1998 after a crash in Southwest Baltimore that killed pilot Barry Wood. It did not resume flights until 2001. The city raised money to reconstitute the unit, buy a hangar at Martin State Airport and have city employees take over maintenance from a contractor.
In 2010, Rawlings-Blake's administration threatened to cut the entire fleet — along with the marine and horseback units — in a "doomsday" budget that did not come to pass.
That year, Foxtrot was involved in more than 7,700 calls for service, assisted in 400 arrests and performed 33,000 "support missions," police said. More recent figures were not available.