Questions surface about costs of MPD’s proposed helicopter program

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A Maui Police Department slide shows an example of the BK117-850D2 aircraft that the department would use for its helicopter program. Screen grab from a slide presented to the Maui County Council’s Budget, Finance and Economic Development Committee. (5.21.24)

The Maui Police Department’s fledgling helicopter program experienced some turbulence this week during a Maui County Council committee meeting when questions surfaced about the proposed air unit’s projected costs.

According to a single-page program budget sheet submitted by the department to the Budget, Finance and Economic Development Committee, the monthly cost to operate the helicopter would be $196,000, or $2,352,000 annually. The hourly cost for deployment would be $1,500. And, there are mission equipment costs for a hoist, a Trakka Total Solution (searchlight, camera and mapping) and night vision goggles that amount to $813,000. And, there are one-time, start-up expenses of $336,800, including $199,800 for initial hoist, night and crew training.

Nicholas “Nick” Krau, Maui Chapter chairman of the Board of Directors for the State of Hawaiʻi Organization of Police Officers, submitted written testimony opposed to the proposed helicopter program.

“It’s off-budget, has zero buy-in from any stakeholder group, and is not well-planned,” he said. “A ‘NO’ vote on this expenditure does not mean you have to oppose creating a helicopter program. It’s quite the opposite. If we are going to establish a helicopter program for MPD, do it the right way. Ensure it’s well planned, has a clear financial picture, transparent policies and expectations, and gets input from stakeholders. Otherwise, this may be the indulgence of one of the greatest impulse buys of all time. We all believe Maui residents deserve better.”

Steve Allen of Allens Plumbing testified in person and said that he was “absolutely shocked” by the helicopter budget numbers, which he estimated could rise to $37.6 million over 10 years. He said Maui County has a population of 165,000 and Oʻahu’s nearly 1 million, and it has two helicopters.


“The cost per citizen on this island to operate this program…. it is absolutely unrealistic,” Allen said.

In response Thursday, Police Chief John Pelletier acknowledged that the Honolulu Police Department has two air units; the Las Vegas Police Department, five; and the Los Angeles Police Department, 17. Air units have become common police practice, and they should not be limited to densely populated, urban areas, he said.

“Why would Maui County be treated differently?” he asked.

Maui police serve residents on three islands — Maui, Molokaʻi and Lānaʻi — and need the capacity to rapidly respond wherever and whenever needed, including at night, (a 24-hour capability currently not available to the Maui Fire Department’s daytime-only Air 1 helicopter), he said. “These arguments (against the air unit program) are in some ways embarrassing for the public who deserves to have exceptional police service and exceptional public safety, 24/7, 365.”

“If we save one life, get a child to safety, then this thing pays for itself,” Pelletier said.


In his written testimony, Krau showed that he added the department’s helicopter budget sheet numbers and came up with first-year costs of $6,281,800.

“Given that the chief is proposing a significant change in department operations, we’d expect a more detailed financial cost analysis than the mini spreadsheet provided for the committee,” he said. “While there are no details in the public submittal, our understanding is that the chief wants to spend over $800,000 on military-style equipment for a helicopter BEFORE we own a helicopter, let alone before the County considers adding air services to the Police Department at all.”

Once the $800,000 is spent, “it’s money wasted if you do not get the helicopter. Of course, then you have to configure staff, hangar, fuel the helicopter, and the list goes on from there,” Krau said.

It’s also unclear whether the $1,500 hourly cost of flying the helicopter is on top of or included in the annual budget estimate, he said.

Pelletier said the Police Department’s air unit budget sheet included a unit price of $2.78 million for a BK117-850D2 helicopter, which was meant to show the cost of buying a second-hand aircraft of that model.


However, “we’re not buying a helicopter,” he said.

Instead, the department will deploy a helicopter through an exclusive use contract, just as the Maui Fire Department does. The contract would include the cost of pilots, hangar fees, lease rent, recertification, maintenance and a $10 million insurance policy, he said. The $1,500 hourly cost for helicopter deployment is on top of the contractor cost.

Pelletier said that, based on MFD’s costs and its fiscal 2025 budget of $2.5 million, the estimated expense of the Police Department’s helicopter will be $2.3 million to $2.4 million. It will add night-flying capability for Maui County police and firefighters, and make it possible for rapid transport of police personnel throughout the tri-isle county, including remote Maui areas, such as Hāna.

As for one-time startup costs, the police chief said those are estimated. They will not be known definitively until a request-for-proposals process has been completed. Also, the department would spread out or offset those costs through fiscal management in ongoing budgets, he said.

Budget Committee Chair Yuki Lei Sugimura asked to have the Police Department’s proposed helicopter program reviewed by her committee before the full Council considers it as part of the fiscal 2025 budget up for second-and-final reading on June 5.

On May 21, during first-reading of the Maui County fiscal 2025 budget, council members voted 9-0 to approve a proposed amendment by Council Member Tom Cook to shift $500,000 within the Police Department’s budget to enable it to issue a request for proposals for a helicopter contractor.

In that meeting, Pelletier told council members the redirected funding would allow his department to jump start a helicopter program to enhance the county’s search-and-rescue capability, assist police with surveillance, decrease response time and allow for night-vision capabilities. He said he was inspired by the Fire Department’s after-action report for the Lahaina wildfire. It called for exploring the possibility of expanding county air operations, now only available during daylight hours with the Fire Department and its contractor Windward Aviation.

While the reverberations of wildfire disaster continue to shape public policy, Pelletier acknowledged that helicopters could not fly in extreme wind conditions, such as the 80-mph winds that fanned the Lahaina conflagration.

Deputy Police Chief Wade Maeda said a police helicopter would enable officers to get quickly to remote areas of Maui County, such as Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi and Hāna, to respond to emergency situations, like someone barricaded or a child missing in a forest.

“Do we have the capability to get there and take effective action and get the family member out safe?” he asked. “Right now, it’s no. We do what we can.”

The Fire Department’s Air 1 is configured for firefighting and doesn’t fly at night, he said.

“So we want to kind of fill the gap and show that this helicopter program is not just for policing only, but it’s a county helicopter,” Maeda said.

Assistant Fire Chief of Operations Henry Lindo said the police and fire departments have a strong, collaborative relationship and could share a second helicopter. For example, a second helicopter would double the amount of water from 300 to 600 gallons that could put out or slow a fire before it gets out of control, he said.

“Our job is to stop fires from getting bigger,” he said.

Krau said there should be a wider community discussion about the police department launching a helicopter program, especially since there has been friction in some jurisdictions between the police department’s air unit and community members.

“Impacts such as loud noise, late-night operations, bright spotlights used for searching and megaphone/loudspeaker use and more become potential friction points between the community and the police department,” he said. “This is why it is entirely inappropriate to delve into creating an air unit without having any community input or interaction.”

Pelletier said Maui police would operate the helicopter for only for law enforcement or emergency purposes, and that they outweigh the aircraft’s possible minimal inconvenience or nuisance for members of the public.

“If our leadership team knows there’s a tool available that saves lives, reduces and disrupts crime and provides for public safety, then we will pursue that technology so that we can be as effective as possible in our police mission,” he said.

After hearing the Police Department’s presentation of the helicopter program, Budget Committee members had few questions and continued to express support on Wednesday. Sugimura deferred the matter in committee.

The department’s slide presentation can be seen here.

Second and final reading of the budget is scheduled for June 5, beginning at 1:30 p.m. The meeting can be seen on Akakū Maui Community Media, cable Channel 53 or via Teams at

The fiscal 2025 budget goes into effect July 1.

Brian Perry
Brian Perry worked as a staff writer and editor at The Maui News from 1990 to 2018. Before that, he was a reporter at the Pacific Daily News in Agana, Guam. From 2019 to 2022, he was director of communications in the Office of the Mayor.
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