Local Politics

Lawmakers eye state aircraft for savings

Posted April 29, 2010 2:45 p.m. EDT
Updated April 29, 2010 3:16 p.m. EDT

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— In an effort to close an $800 million budget shortfall, North Carolina lawmakers are looking everywhere for savings, including up in the air.

The state spends $10.8 million annually to own and operate 52 planes and 30 helicopters for transporting officials, assisting law enforcement and keeping watch over state forests.

The General Assembly's watchdog agency, the Program Evaluation Division, recommended Thursday that the state sell 25 of the aircraft and using others for spare parts. Officials said the move would generate $8.1 million in revenue and save $1.5 million in operating costs annually.

The Program Evaluation Division found that 57 of the 72 aircraft are flown less than 200 hours a year, and eight never left the ground in the 2008-09 fiscal year. An industry standard is that aircraft are cost-effective only if they are flown at least 200 hours annually, officials said.

Officials said five hangars also could be eliminated to save another $26,000 a year.

Various agencies disagreed with the recommendation.

Division of Forest Resources officials said giving up planes would adversely impact their readiness in case of a fire, and State Bureau of Investigation director Robin Pendergraft said her agency cannot afford to lose a plane used to transport prisoners.

"With all of the regulations in place federally, officers find it more difficult to fly armed, and they can't go pick up prisoners without weapons," Pendergraft said. "We're (also) not allowed to handcuff people on commercial planes. I don't know about you, but I don't want my daughter flying next to a criminal that's not handcuffed."

The Program Evaluation Division also recommended creating a group within the state Department of Transportation to better coordinate the use and maintenance of state-owned aircraft.