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City Commission discusses defunding the Joint Aviation Unit

Sheriff Darnell addresses the City Commission

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

During its March 5 meeting, the Gainesville City Commission considered withdrawing its funding for the Joint Aviation Unit. The agenda item was proposed by City Manager Lee Feldman.

Feldman prefaced his introduction of the agenda item by saying, “Nobody challenges the value of air support as a tool in providing law enforcement for our community and the community at large. The issue that I’m raising for the commission’s consideration is: Is it the right value to the City in terms of our contribution, and what should our contribution be for an aviation unit in light of other cities and the unincorporated [cities’] participation?” Feldman says it’s currently a 50/50 split between the City and County, but the County funds it from property taxes, and 46% of the properties that pay County property taxes are in the City of Gainesville, “so when you do the math, it comes out to about a 73% contribution” from Gainesville property owners.

The City owns a helicopter, but it is damaged and can’t be flown. Also, their FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared Radar) thermal imaging system is damaged. Replacing it will cost $250k-$750k. Feldman concluded, “When I came to the City, I told you I was going to turn over stones and find out what’s there, so I’ve started turning stones over and this is one of the first ones, and I think the commission needs to give very serious consideration to saying that if there’s not a new funding formula by October 1st that is more equitable, we’re not going to continue with the aviation unit in its current fashion.”

Gainesville Police Chief Tony Jones said the aviation unit is “much needed, not only for operational, when you’re looking for the bad person, you’re looking for lost people, and you’re looking at officer safety. These are things that I value high.” He said the value of one unit in the air is “far superior” to officers on the ground. He said the funding should be moved to the general fund “because you can’t live on forfeiture funds forever.” However, he said, “It is definitely a need for the Gainesville Police Department, the citizens of Gainesville, as well as the citizens of Alachua County.” Chief Jones said that drones can’t do what aviation units do and that most experts say you need a combination of both.

GPD’s helicopter has been out of service since June 2019. Commissioner David Arreola asked why it hadn’t been repaired; Chief Jones didn’t answer the question directly but said they had access to the Sheriff’s Department helicopter. Arreola added, “I would like to point out that the City of Gainesville should probably not be acting like the other municipalities in the county can hold the same water that we can. I don’t think that’s a path we should go down.”

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Chief Jones said that if they didn’t have a helicopter, they would have to rely on other counties when one is needed, and those helicopters are not always available when you need them. “It’s comforting to know that you have air support.”

Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell said she was concerned that the wording of the agenda item said it was to discuss termination of the contract as of September 30, and “that is right around the corner.” She said she only heard about the item “through rumors.” 

Darnell said she needs to understand why there is suddenly a concern about the funding before she can adequately respond to that concern. She said City Manager Feldman believes that an aviation unit is a Sheriff’s Office responsibility, but there is nothing in the Florida Statutes about that. In fact, our local unit was initiated by GPD. “The need has not gone away. In fact, I would submit to you that the need is greater than ever…  I heard someone who spoke earlier, and I know the sentiment that it’s noisy. I get that. It can be annoying. It’s annoying unless you need it, and when you need it, you don’t care about the noise. You just want it to get there fast and catch the offenders as quickly as they can. It is a force multiplier.”

She said the city’s portion of funding for the Joint Aviation Unit is about $300k, and the County’s portion is about the same. “The bulk of that cost, though, in yours and mine, are the salaries of the two sworn personnel that are assigned on the City’s side and the other two on my side. If you are looking to cut that $300,000 on the City’s side, that’s telling me, unless you tell me otherwise tonight, that you’re talking about cutting two sworn positions from the Gainesville Police Department. We all know that GPD needs more officers, not less, so if you’re looking to save that money… a good portion of that money is going to be the cutting, the elimination, of two sworn officers.”

She continued, “This is a low-cost, high-value level of service… It was started with a military surplus program… and it’s still pennies on the dollar for what we are all getting.” Regarding the statement in the agenda that no small municipalities contribute to the aviation unit, she said, “I have learned… the City of Archer and the City of Hawthorne have been paying into the MSTU, which contributes a portion towards the aviation unit, so that is not a true statement… I recognize fiscal realities… so I want to have a discussion about this… My ask is for you to recommend this item to staff, pump the brakes, don’t move too fast. Look at this; let us study it, those of us who know best about the value of it, and those of us who have funding responsibilities, the City and the County. Let’s involve the County staff, the County Commission, Sheriff’s Office staff, City staff, Gainesville Police Department.” 

Mayor Lauren Poe immediately jumped in and asked Feldman whether he had any intention of cutting sworn officers; Feldman said, “Absolutely not.” Commissioner Harvey Ward also said nobody had suggested that they cut staff, “So take that right off the table.”

Darnell tried to respond to that, but Poe interrupted her and said, “Sheriff, we’re back to the commission… we’re going to make comments…”

Darnell said, “I’m going to clarify that the $300k amount, that is incorrect because it includes $175k of salary and benefits.”

Poe said, “Okay, thank you, thank you… we just listened to a 20-minute presentation from you [editor’s note: it was under 14 minutes]; now the commission needs to deliberate. If there are any corrections you need to make, I’ll recognize you after the commission’s has a time to do so, ok? Everybody is treated equitably in here; everybody is treated the same, whether you have a badge on or not; everybody is treated equally. Thank you.”

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said, “I’m a strong supporter of the aviation unit… I think that’s important, but what’s also important is that our Gainesville residents do not pay more than everyone else, and that is what has been happening here. We’re paying 73% of the costs for 48% of the calls. Why should our Gainesville residents be paying more than someone in an unincorporated area, in Haile, in Tioga, someone in Newberry, why should we be paying more for getting less service, in essence? We talk about affordability, we talk about how we want to make it cheaper to live in Gainesville, and by doing it the way that we are funding it now, we’re making it more expensive to live in Gainesville than it is to live in unincorporated areas, and I think that’s wrong… I think the way it could be fair is if the County funds it out of their general fund, then it’s available to the whole county, it’s available to all of the different police departments throughout the county that are separate from the Sheriff, and that’s a fair way to do it… I think the County should fund it.”

Commissioner Gigi Simmons said she wanted all the stakeholders to have a conversation: “You cannot put a price on safety.”

Commissioner Arreola moved that they direct City staff to convene the stakeholders and return with an equitable funding option for the future, including a plan to bring the City’s helicopter back to functioning operation. Mayor Poe added that it should be placed on the next joint City/County Commission meeting. He said he wanted to do that because “there’s got to be some type of urgency to this… This really is an equity issue…  I just hope that everybody involved hears us very clearly, that we’re serious about this and if we get to September 30th and there’s been no movement, no change, I’ll speak for myself, that will not be acceptable.”

Poe then invited Darnell to speak. She said, “I invited myself to this conversation because I heard about it through the grapevine. That’s not the way this should happen. I find it very disrespectful… when you make a comment, Mr. Mayor, that we need to—we, meaning you all—need to create a sense of urgency for the County Commission to do something about it, to respond. That has not been my experience regarding issues of public safety… I find the County Commission, at least three of them, to be very responsive and interested and supportive and attentive to issues of public safety. I have not found that to be the case here tonight. I have found this to be a very odd, stilted, disrespectful process… This has been a very one-way, very exclusive, non-inclusive process over an issue that affects this community.”

The motion passed unanimously.