Police suspend aircraft purchase

Posted Nov. 30, 2008, at 10:45 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — After strong, bipartisan criticism, the Maine State Police decided not to use money forfeited by drug dealers to buy a new airplane at a cost of $345,000 after convincing the appropriations committee they needed to purchase the plane immediately.

“The plane is old, but it is still functioning,” Col. Patrick Fleming, chief of the state police, said in an interview. “We are going to continue to fly the plane and continue to use it as we have used it.”

He said it made “no sense” to continue with the purchase after lawmakers made it clear they believed it should be a legislative decision. There are few restrictions on the use of money forfeited by drug dealers, but several lawmakers have said they will move in this session to require the money to be allocated by the Legislature.

“It’s not going to be used as a slush fund,” said Rep. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, co-chairman of the Legislature’s criminal justice committee. He was elected to the state Senate last month and plans to introduce the legislation soon after he is sworn in Wednesday.

Gerzofsky will have plenty of co-sponsors or supporters for the legislation from both parties that felt blindsided by Public Safety Commissioner Anne Jordan, who requested a waiver to use drug forfeiture money without the usual 30-day delay for a financial order transferring funds.

“I have some great concern that if we don’t take advantage of this now, take advantage of the drug forfeiture money now, very shortly we will have to ground the plane,” she told members of the appropriations committee in September. “That will of course result in a significant decrease in revenue coming to the state and a decrease in our ability to conduct investigations.”

While members of the panel voted to allow the transfer of funds, they raised a lot of questions about whether lawmakers had been told of the plan in advance (they had not) and whether the proposal for the purchase of a new aircraft was the most prudent choice.

“It was told to us that the plane might have safety issues,” said Rep. David Webster, D-Freeport. “I certainly didn’t want to put any of the pilots at risk, but I was not getting good answers to my questions on this. “

He had peppered Jordan and Lt. Col. Robert Williams, state police deputy chief, about maintenance of the existing aircraft, alternatives to buying a new plane such as overhauling the engine of the existing aircraft, and the choice the state police had made for a replacement aircraft.

“I have been told that given the essential purpose of the equipment, the loss of top cruising speed would seem to easily be offset by the substantial savings in cost per hour in operation,” he said.

Webster thought the more fuel efficient but slower Cessna 172 model would be a better deal than the faster, more costly to operate Cessna 182 the state police were going to buy.

Fleming said that after all of the questions were raised and lawmakers said they would be seeking a change in the laws governing the use of drug forfeiture funds, he talked with the pilots about options for the aircraft, which is used for speed enforcement details, drug enforcement efforts and searches for fugitives.

“With the Legislature looking at changing the way we use that money, it would be premature for us to go out and use it for a new plane,” he said.

Fleming acknowledged the plane was about to be purchased when he ordered the purchase stopped. He discussed the condition of the 28-year-old plane with the pilots who fly it and believes there is useful life in the aircraft until lawmakers can decide whether an overhaul or a new plane is the best course of action.

“In talking to the pilots, they are confident that we can get another year or so out of it,” he said. “By that point, hopefully something will have happened here at the State House and we will know what direction we can go in.”

Lawmakers such as Rep. Richard Sykes, R-Harrison, the lead GOP member of the criminal justice committee, are not sure where a new aircraft will be as budget priorities are set by the new Legislature.

“I was fortunate enough to go up in one of the aircraft and they are a very effective enforcement tool,” he said. “But we are facing a lot of demands and we will simply not have as much to do with.”

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, is co-chairman of the criminal justice committee and also serves on the transportation committee. He said the drug forfeiture money could be used to offset expected decreases in state funds and he also believes lawmakers should be making spending decisions, not agencies.

“And yes, I am putting in legislation,” he said, “and I am not alone.”

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