Sheriff Hoffman wins County Commission approval for new helicopter and Armored Quick Rescue and Response Vehicle plus second mobile command center vehicle

Impact fees and penny sales tax revenue to cover expense

With a recent unanimous vote, the Sarasota County Commission approved an extra $7,987,353 in the county’s Capital Improvement Program budget to pay for a new helicopter, as well as a new Armored Quick Rescue and Response Vehicle and a second mobile command center vehicle for the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office.

That money will come out of the Justice Facilities Impact Fee Construction Fund, a county staff memo said. An additional $6,146,612 will be provided through the county’s Surtax IV (penny sales tax) Program, which won voter approval during the November 2022 General Election, the memo added.

On a separate vote on the November 2022 ballot, citizens authorized the county to issue bonds that will be paid back by the revenue expected through the 15-year life of the Surtax IV Program. The bond money will enable staff to accelerate projects approved under the aegis of that program.

The new mobile command center vehicle will cost $1,736,984, while the expense of the new Armored Quick Rescue and Response Vehicle was put at $368,387.

The vote authorizing the expenditure of the county funds took place during the commission’s regular meeting on March 7, in response to a Jan. 31 letter from Sheriff Kurt A. Hoffman.

In that letter, sent to County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, Hoffman pointed out that, since 2020, he and his senior staff had discussed with the commissioners — during budget workshops — the agency’s needs in regard to the aviation unit and the mobile command center.

“Given the rising costs we have experienced and will continue to experience,” the sheriff added, “significant savings can be achieved if the prices are locked in now and the ordering process is started.”

The aviation unit has two aircraft that provide countywide services, Hoffman noted in the letter: a 2005 Bell 407 with 9,450 hours, which was purchased new; and a 2012 Bell 407 GX with 5,620 hours, “which the board graciously purchased in 2018.”

Hoffman added, “Prior to purchase of the second aircraft, the aviation unit averaged approximately 61 down days per year for service and maintenance. As predicted, the additional aircraft has yielded virtually no down days and has enabled our aviation unit to increase flight time by 348 hours per year.”

Moreover, Hoffman pointed out, “The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office aviation unit is the only law enforcement aviation unit in the county and is a tremendous service to the community.”

During the March 7 board meeting, Commissioner Nancy Detert referenced law enforcement authorities’ 2021 search of the Carlton Reserve in South County in an effort to find Brian Laundrie of North Port, who was a suspect in the disappearance of his fiancée, Gabby Petito, also of North Port.

“We did not look like a small local government that couldn’t handle the issue,” Detert said. “The [Sheriff’s Office aviation unit] is part of the reason. We do still have vast spaces left that need to be searched on occasion,” she added.

Commissioner Mark Smith also noted the importance of the aviation unit in helping put out large fires.

Hoffman further explained in his letter that, because of its age, “outdated technology, and the increased expense related to the amount of unscheduled maintenance required, I am respectfully requesting the replacement and upgrade of the 2005 aircraft.

“Chief Pilot Brent Wineka has thoroughly reviewed and presented to our staff several options that include pros and cons of different models as well as the purchase of a used aircraft,” Hoffman continued in his letter. “Unfortunately,” he wrote, used aircraft “are at a premium,” a result of the one- to two-year “buildout process for new aircraft.”

He also pointed out that if the agency bought a used aircraft, that would necessitate “a complete teardown and retro fit of the law enforcement equipment we would need to meet our mission parameters.”

Therefore, Hoffman added, “A new helicopter affords us the opportunity to build out the aircraft at the time of purchase.” Moreover, he explained, a new aircraft would have a three-year, 1,000-hour warranty, and its purchase would eliminate the agency’s estimated $1.4-million expense in overhauls over the next two years if he had to keep the 2005 helicopter in service.

Hoffman then wrote that he was requesting “the purchase of a 2024 Bell 429 with an approximate total cost of $12,028,594 …” That figure includes an estimated $1.3-million trade-in of the older helicopter, he noted.

“Additionally, savings of $175,000 are achieved by having a third party upfitter install the aftermarket law enforcement equipment,” he wrote. Moreover, he continued, the Sheriff’s Office can get the helicopter in 12 months, instead of 18 months, if the agency purchased another Bell 407.

Further, Hoffman pointed out that the new Bell 420, which is a twin-engine aircraft, has greater hoisting capabilities and a longer flying time.

He also explained that the initial training for the pilots and mechanics “is being negotiated to be included in the purchase price,” which would save $113,200.

Details about the mobile command center and new armored vehicle

Further in his letter, Hoffman addressed the need for the new mobile command center and the armored rescue vehicle.

The agency is using “a 2006 Freightliner MT-55 that was outfitted to operate as a mobile command center,” he wrote. That vehicle allows the Sheriff’s Office to assist during large-scale situations within the community, he added. “With the overall growth of Sarasota County,” Hoffman noted, the number and types of events in which use of an additional mobile command center would be helpful have grown.

Hoffman explained that such a vehicle can serve as a mobile dispatch center during large-scale events, “or to meet critical needs post disaster or natural event such as a hurricane. They can also be used to manage critical incidents such as a SWAT callout to a hostage incident or barricaded subject.”

He added that the interior of the vehicle “will have dedicated spaces designed for the agency’s hostage negotiations team, incident dispatch team, and administrative media liaisons.” Its exterior, he continued, will

house “large screen displays and technology hookups for commanders to run a scene and/or share critical information.”

As an example of the value of such a vehicle, Hoffman pointed to the Brian Laundrie search, which lasted for weeks. Many Sheriff’s Office personnel, as well as representatives of other agencies, were able to use the mobile command vehicle. Yet, he emphasized, “While the vehicle was a necessary asset for this search, it was unavailable to respond to any other incident that may have occurred. With the addition of a new more technically advanced vehicle,” Hoffman added, the Sheriff’s Office “will be better equipped to handle multiple incidents and/or events.”

He noted that the facility also is used at the Sarasota County Fair; during July Fourth, Memorial Day and spring break events on the barrier islands; prolonged investigations; SWAT call-outs; and disaster response.

In regard to the armored vehicle, Hoffman explained that the Sheriff’s Office has been using a 2008 Lenco Bearcat “to provide countywide services.” He added that the “SWAT team is called upon to respond to potentially life-threatening active critical incidents rising above the capabilities of general law enforcement personnel.” Among those, he noted, are hostage situations, incidents involving people who have barricaded themselves in homes or other buildings, service of high-risk search warrants, VIP visits, and rescues.

One of the benefits of having a newer armored vehicle, Hoffman pointed out, is being able to take advantage of “the advanced technology and improved safety features.” For example, Hoffman continued, the new models have an articulating hydraulic ram, whose use will provide better protection for personnel in situations that could be deemed life-threatening. That means officers could breach a dwelling with much less risk to themselves, he explained.