Declining revenue from drug seizures may ground Hawkins County sheriff's helicopter

Jeff Bobo • May 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM

With revenue from the seizure of drug-related property on the decline, Hawkins County Sheriff Roger Christian said Monday he may have to chop the department’s marijuana eradication helicopter from the 2007-08 fiscal year budget to avoid ending up in the red.

Between insurance, storage and maintenance, the helicopter costs the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office about $20,000 annually simply to possess before it even gets off the ground. Insurance is $9,300 per year alone.

During the current fiscal year, the sheriff’s department was anticipating $75,000 in revenue from drug fines, court costs and seizures based on previous years. But instead that figure will come in at barely over $41,000 this year.

The biggest revenue difference is in property seizures. Two years ago, the HCSO netted 138,906 in seized property. Last year, that figure dropped to $49,147.

In this current fiscal year with a little more than a month left to go, the department has netted only $15,000 in seized property.

Seizures, fines and court costs are all deposited in the department’s drug fund. That overall revenue figure will have dropped from $175,565 in 2004-05 to about $41,000 in 2006-07.

Just a couple of years ago, there was more than $300,000 in the HCSO’s drug fund. In recent years, however, the department has chipped away at the drug fund to balance its budget and meet rising operation costs, and Christian said it’s currently down to almost nothing.

The Hawkins County Commission’s Budget Committee is meeting with county department heads all this week to go over their budget requests for the upcoming fiscal year. Christian said when he presents his proposed budget to the committee on Wednesday, it will be minus the funding for the helicopter.

“I started with a budget that mirrors what expenditures we’re currently operating under,” Christian told the Times-News Monday. “Based on current revenues, at the end of the (2007-08 fiscal) year I was going to have to borrow $15,000 just to fund the same budget. It all goes back to our seizures.

“I’d like to think that means we’ve run the criminal element out of Hawkins County, but I don’t think that’s the case. I’ve been here since September, and the numbers have stayed pretty consistent since then, but I can’t really explain the discrepancy between the other years.”

The HCSO began its marijuana eradication helicopter program in 1997. In the early years, the helicopter was responsible for the seizure of an average of 10,000 to 12,000 plants per year. In recent years, that number began to decline annually.

Last year the helicopter was responsible for about 1,300 marijuana plants being seized. It was widely assumed that the helicopter was so efficient at eliminating outdoor pot growing in Hawkins County that the growers simply stopped, or moved indoors.

Future marijuana growers of Hawkins County shouldn’t begin celebrating the HCSO helicopter’s potential demise just yet, however.

Christian noted that the Tennessee National Guard helicopters will still be patrolling the air above Hawkins County, as will the Tennessee Highway Patrol chopper.

“It would be great to keep the helicopter because we’re the only department around here who has one,” Christian said. “It’s just a huge expense. We might put it in mothballs for a while, and if the revenue picks back up maybe we can bring it back out.

“Just because I’m considering cutting it from the budget doesn’t mean we’re getting rid of it.”

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