Battle in the skies, Mercy Flight versus Air-1

The Mercy Flight crew poses at a news conference Monday morning / photo: Jim Kenyon

A news conference Monday morning with Mercy Flight has focused attention on the growing controversy over funding for the Onondaga County Sheriff Department's helicopter, Air-1.

Mercy Flight roll ed out its newest helicopter which will be based at Marcellus airport. The chopper will be used for medical evacuations in Onondaga County and surrounding areas. Mercy Flight Executive Neil Snedeker said the $5 million helicopter will provide faster and better service for Central New York. He added, "our organization does not rely on taxpayer money or government support."

The event comes one day before the Onondaga County Legislature is slated to vote on a budget that cuts funding for Air-1.

Sheriff Kevin Walsh has been trying to persuade Onondaga County legislators to restore money to pay the salaries of four pilots for Air-1. " W e had anticipated we would have a partnership in this but some of the legislators are dead set against Air 1. We believe the majority will support it." Walsh told CNY Central's Jim Kenyon.

The Sheriff argues that Air-1 does much more than medical evacuations. He says it's an important law enforcement tool to combat crime, as well as assist in search and rescue operations.

Some county lawmakers say however that the Sheriff's Department's helicopter, at nearly $600 thousand, is too expensive to operate. They claim there are other helicopter services available, including Mercy Flight and a helicopter operated by the New York State Police.

For the past year, the Sherriff's Department has been trying to find alternative ways to fund its helicopter, including the use of a fund raising foundation and imposing service fees on outside police agencies which utilize its service. Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney said, "We're just asking the Sheriff to implement the private financing he indicated he's able to do."

Should county lawmakers restore money for Air-1, or is it too much of a burden on taxpayers?