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Thu, May 24, 2007

Decline In Drug Seizures Threatens Law Enforcement Helo

Doing A Good Job May Lead To Unemployment

The Hawkins County (TN) Sheriffs Department may have done too good of a job. Money realized from drug-related property seizure counts for a large portion of the department's annual budget... but with those numbers on the decline, the sheriff is facing some tough decisions.

Sheriff Roger Christian said Monday he may have to eliminate the department's marijuana eradication helicopter from the 2007-08 fiscal year budgets to avoid ending up in the red, according to the Tennessee Times News.

The helicopter (type unspecified; the FAA registry lists a Bell OH-58A registered to Hawkins County Sheriffs Department -- Ed.) costs the Hawkins County Sheriff's Office about $20,000 annually just to possess before it even gets off the ground. They pay $9,300 per year in insurance.

This fiscal year, the department was anticipating $75,000 in revenue from drug fines, court costs and seizures... but that figure will barely top $41,000. As far as property seizures, the department has netted only $15,000 so far.

Around 2005, there was more than $300,000 in the HCSO's drug fund, Christian said. Taking small amounts here and there to help meet every-rising costs has reduced that amount to almost zero.

When Christian presents his proposed budget at the Hawkins County Commission's Budget Committee this week, he will be forced to do it minus the helicopter.

"I started with a budget that mirrors what expenditures we're currently operating under," Christian said. "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. 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."

Since taking flight in 1997, the helicopter has been responsible for an annual seizure average of 10,000 to 12,000 marijuana plants. In recent years, that number has begun to decline.

It has been widely assumed the helicopter is so efficient at eliminating outdoor pot growing in Hawkins County the growers either just stopped or moved their operations indoors.

But, anyone growing or planning to grow marijuana in Hawkins County shouldn't let their guard down just yet.

The Tennessee National Guard and state highway patrol will continue patrolling the Hawkins County skies as they already do.

"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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