New Dare EMS helicopter will cost $9.1 million

By on October 4, 2011

Dare MedFlight air ambulance. (Dare County)

A new EMS helicopter is the big ticket item in a five-year capital spending plan approved by Dare County commissioners.

The plan calls for buying the chopper late in 2013 at a cost of $9.1 million and paying for it over 10 years, Finance Director David Clawson told the Board of Commissioners Monday.

Keeping the old helicopter, which went into service for Dare County in 1990, would cost $300,000 to $400,000 annually for maintenance, Clawson said.

Trading it in for $1.5 million would cut the amount the county would need to finance to $7.6 million. Annual payments starting in 2014 at $945,000 would also be reduced if the county billed Medicare and private insurance for the cost of flights.

Clawson’s figures show that a fee-based service starting in 2014 would bring in a conservative estimate of $1 million a year. Tighter Federal Aviation Administration standards would mean about $675,000 extra in annual maintenance expenses, but that would still leave a net of $375,000 a year to help pay off the debt.

A smaller model would cost about $1 million less, but commissioners said that the helicopter proved invaluable after Hurricane Irene and that the county might want to consider a larger, multi-purpose aircraft.

County Manager Bobby Outten said that three models of helicopters were considered. The one in the budget is slightly larger than the current MedFlight.

With Hatteras Island’s only land route, N.C. 12, cut off by multiple breaches after Hurricane Irene in late August, the helicopter has been pressed into extra service.

“We’ve used our helicopter to ferry things that we can ferry — vaccine, tetanus vaccine, EMS people, staff as we needed, whatever we needed to do,” Outten said. “But we have a limited capability because it’s a small helicopter.”

Outten said, however, that it is not clear yet whether a multi-mission helicopter would be worth the additional money.

Commissioner Max Dutton asked if it would be worthwhile to keep the old helicopter as a backup. The question is how much keeping the old helicopter on standby would reduce maintenance costs or if the tighter FAA standard for a fee-based service would mean even higher repair costs.

The capital improvement budget includes spending for construction, building repairs and equipment. It is separate from the operating budget, which is approved annually before July 1, the beginning of the fiscal year.

A capital reserve fund is set aside exclusively for that use. The bulk of the money comes from the county’s share of land transfer tax revenue and interest earnings on money already in the fund.

In 2012, the county’s share of land transfer tax revenue is projected to be down to about $3 million compared to $9.8 million in 2005. So there is not much available for other projects.

Included in the plan plan are $2.5 million for the Board of Education to continue paying off the debt on school construction over four years and another $675,000 over five years for recurring capital costs for schools.

Only $500,000 of a request from the school board that started at $9.3 million was included in the plan. Of that, $3.6 million would have gone toward an additional classroom at Manteo Elementary School. The rest would have gone toward building renovations such as painting, roofing and HVAC and refurbishing athletic facilities.

About $15.9 million in total spending through 2016 also includes a new skate park for the Fessenden Center, a new cell for the C&D landfill, a new roof and HVAC control system for the jail, replacing a bulldozer at the C&D landfill and replacing a public works excavator.

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