Travis County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to spend roughly $34 million to replace the county’s aging fleet of helicopters used for emergency medical transportation, search-and-rescue operations and fire suppression.
The county’s costs will be reduced from the sale of the helicopters, a $10 million donation over five years from the Seton Family of Hospitals and the restructuring of county funds. About $11 million to $14 million will need to be debt-financed by fiscal year 2019, staff estimated.
The helicopters, two 2005 models, one 2009 model and a refurbished Vietnam-era UH-1/”Huey,” are in need of routine replacement, officials said. That contract will come up for approval by the court likely some time next month.
The “Huey,” which is configured for firefighting and was bought a year after the Labor Day wildfires of 2011, has been significantly underused, as the American-Statesman reported. All four helicopters will be sold, and all but the “Huey” will be replaced.
“We don’t want an expensive program to be decided with emotion, like right after a wildfire,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said. “In 20-20 hindsight, we probably should not have purchased that. And I think we need to be honest with the public about that.”
The STAR Flight program, founded in 1985, provides life-saving services to Travis County residents facing emergency situations, including rescue from trauma scenes not easily accessible on the ground.
A May staff memo showed that calls for service were primarily for emergency medical services, at 83 percent of calls, followed by search and rescue at 11 percent and fire suppression at 1 percent.
The added capabilities of the three added aircraft will “easily replace” those provided by the fourth helicopter, “while providing a safer and more modern fleet,” county staff said in a memo. Some of those include the ability to fly longer distances and carry more water for fire suppression.
“We’re reducing our fleet but maintaining our capacity,” Eckhardt said.
The county’s planning and budget office will in coming months return to the court with its recommendation on whether to use a broker to sell the three aircraft or trade them in to the manufacturer. The “Huey” will be sold using a broker.
Commissioners also had considered keeping the existing fleet (which officials said would have cost at least 72 percent more in scheduled maintenance costs than a new fleet) or reducing the fleet to two helicopters.
Commissioners Brigid Shea and Gerald Daugherty on Tuesday expressed reservations about the hefty price tag.
“I’ve got heartburn around the cost we’re taking on,” Shea said. “I guess maybe one way to do this is just to make sure we get regular updates on what is happening with the revenue and … maintenance costs and all that kind of thing because a lot’s riding on those assumptions.”
Daugherty also urged the county’s emergency services department to keep the court aware of the state of its revenue.
“You have to be very vigilant about collections. … That is the business part of this thing because some people will skate on this,” Daugherty said, referring to uncompensated costs.
Commissioners on Tuesday held off on deciding whether to hire six new flight staff members, which would allow two helicopters to be available 24/7 all year. As of now, two helicopters are available all year during the day, and one at night, the memo stated.
Commissioners will also consider hiring a “strategic sustainability and outreach manager” to seek out grants and raise money for the program.
The vote Tuesday come after STAR Flight in August tripled its fees for Travis County patient transport to increase revenue and lighten the burden on taxpayers.
Insurance companies now pay a $15,000 base rate and $200 per mile, up from $4,500 for county residents and $9,500 for non-county residents, and $165 per mile. Individuals pay deductibles and co-pays according to their insurance plans.