Sheriff Babb to lose eyes in the sky?

Cash-starved Fayette County may eliminate the sheriff’s department’s entire air wing — one helicopter named Hawk 1.

Though the department’s budget is still a work in progress, Sheriff Barry Babb said the cuts will eliminate 10 positions in his office and result in shutting down the operation of the Hawk 1 helicopter, as well as losing half the K-9 units and two drug education officers.

Babb said budget-trimming is ahead after consultations with the Fayette County Commission about his $16.5 million budget resulted in cutting approximately $500,000 from his proposed FY 2014 budget.

Babb on Monday said he was informed earlier this year that his office would be required to reduce the budget for FY 2014. During the past four years the total sheriff’s office budget grew by more than $1 million as new modern technology was purchased and put into service, Babb said. The sheriff’s budget currently totals approximately $16.5 million. Babb was elected in November and took office Jan. 1 of this year.

The cuts include 10 positions and the sale of the Hawk 1 helicopter. The savings from the eliminated positions and the maintenance and upkeep of the helicopter total approximately $500,000, Babb said, adding that he is also looking at other potential budget reduction areas.

The cuts effective this week include reducing three K-9 positions, two DARE drug awareness program officers, an investigator position, the compliance officer, a crime scene investigator, the community liaison position and the Hawk 1 pilot. Babb said a number of the staff in the positions being eliminated are being reassigned to other positions within the sheriff’s office.

Babb said the K-9 unit is being reduced from six to three full service positions, adding that this change will not negatively impact the services provided by the sheriff’s office.

Pertaining to the DARE program providing drug awareness training to elementary school students, Babb said it has been reorganized to utilize school resource officers to assist with the program.

“This change is a great way to enhance the work already performed by school resource officers by giving them the opportunity to have more interaction with students,” said Babb. “I believe the program will continue to provide excellent training for Fayette County’s youth.”

Also a part of the budget-trimming is the Hawk 1 program which will be discontinued and the helicopter sold. As a result of this change a pilot’s position will be eliminated, Babb said.

“While the helicopter operation has been a valuable resource, we believe that discontinuation of the air unit will not have a detrimental impact on our ability to serve and protect the community,” Babb said. “Shutting down this unit also allows me to save numerous jobs and still comply with the mandatory budget cuts.”

In another budget-related matter, Babb said his office will utilize funds from the assets gained as a result of drug seizures to assist in maintaining its computer and technology needs. The sheriff’s office by law is limited in the manner in which it can use asset forfeiture funds. Babb said he believes that this use will enable the office to maintain its technology while also providing a way to save taxpayer funds.

Babb said each county department and each constitutional office is doing its part and his office is responding to the economic reality facing Fayette County.

“It is tough to be told to cut your budget in any business, but especially difficult when you are in the business of fighting crime and keeping a community safe. However, I realize that the economic hardship facing Fayette County has to be addressed globally and the sheriff’s office is committed to trying to do more with less,” Babb said.

“Over the past several weeks I have conducted an internal analysis of all of our programs and assets to determine how we can efficiently and effectively reorganize the sheriff’s office while complying with the budget constraints that we face,” Babb said.

“As a result of our analysis, we have eliminated some programs and reorganized others, which unfortunately has resulted in the elimination of some positions. Despite these changes, I am certain we will continue to be effective in our duty to protect and serve the citizens of Fayette County,” Babb said. “The sheriff’s office will continue to serve and protect this community and do everything possible to ensure that the momentum created in fighting crime continues uninterrupted.”

Below, Hawk 1 in front of its hangar in 2011. File photo.