Columbus police helicopters, once under scrutiny, get new $900,000 maintenance contract
During last year's protests and riots against racial injustice and police use of force, "helicopter" became a dirty word for the Columbus Division of Police.
Hundreds of residents and some city officials began criticizing the cost, noise, intrusiveness and military feel of the city's helicopter fleet, with some protesters saying it should be eliminated as part of review of all division spending.
Despite that, a divided Columbus City Council on Monday approved a nearly $900,000 maintenance contract for the division's five helicopters for another year. The council voted 4-2, with President Shannon Hardin absent, to extend the maintenance contract with Helicopter Minit-Men, Inc.
Voting "no" were members Elizabeth Brown and Shayla Favor.
Residents complain about Columbus police helicopters
During hearings last year before the council, it was revealed that of 906 written comments submitted by the public about concerns with Columbus police, 23% involved helicopters — particularly their cost.
The new contract amount was within the range of between $775,000 and $1.26 million spent on annual repairs and maintenance of the helicopter fleet over the last three years — a time when the number of choppers was six, making it one of the larger such police units in the nation. The division reduced the number to five last year.
Inspections and maintenance are paramount to the safety of the crew and public, and are mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration, said George Speaks, assistant director of the city Department of Public Safety.
"They play a vital role in the safety of our city, as shown by a number of factors," Speaks said. He noted that helicopters are making vehicle pursuits safer by allowing cruisers to back away, and often being first on crime scenes thousands of times per year, giving arriving officers a heads-up as to what's going on.
More controversy after police helicopter pilot spells 'CPD' during flight
But the helicopter unit became the focus of controversy again last month after the operator of one of the birds spelled out "CPD" during its flight. Some thought it was cool while others, not so much.
Despite the importance of the maintenance contract, the police division did not ask for the ordinance to pass on "emergency," which would have required an extra "yes" vote for approval.
The Dispatch reported in February that the council used emergency passages, requiring six yes votes to pass, 68% of the time last year. Six of seven votes is an 86% supermajority of the council - more unanimity than the two-thirds needed for the U.S. Senate to convict a U.S. president during an impeachment trial.
The council used emergency passage earlier this year when it attempted to cut $2.5 million from the police division's $336.8 million budget, but the measure was successfully thwarted by two opposing members. While requiring only a simple majority to pass, non-emergency measures must be "read" at two meetings before a vote occurs, and take 30 days after approval before they go into effect.
Safety Director Ned Pettus said last month he had ordered an investigation into a police helicopter pilot who spelled out "CPD" in an early-morning weekend flight over a residential area on the East Side.
In other business Monday, the council approved an overhaul of the city's Community Relations Commission, which investigates and helps prosecute discrimination against individuals in employment, housing and public accommodations, giving it the ability to directly levy fines of up to $5,000 to violators.
The changes also expand the definition of "sex" as a protected class to include "decisions relating to the use ... of products or services for contraception, sterilization, fertility treatment, pregnancy or its termination, hormone therapy including that which alters gender expression or affirms gender identity, or medical treatments that affirm gender identity."
The changes are a "necessary next step toward a more-just city" to include having "their own reproductive health decisions" protected, said Kelley Freeman of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, which works to protect access to contraception and abortions. "...People should be supported in their decisions and not punished because of them."
To encourage urban gardening, the council relaxed city codes by allowing "produce stands" of not more than 120 square feet to sit on lots of less than one acre from April through December. Sales at the stands are limited to two days per week, between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. If the parcel contains a "dwelling unit," the stand must be taken down each night and stored inside.
The council also passed a series of ordinances to support the financial empowerment of women and families, utilizing $105,864 in funding for LSS 211 Central Ohio and the Legal Aid Society of Columbus to continue implementing the Financial Navigator program.
That program provides free financial guidance and connections to federal, state, and local resources. The funding also will support the launch of a new financial empowerment center to support free, one-on-one, professional financial counseling as a public service to residents.