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As budget cuts threaten Air-1 chopper, sheriff hawks naming rights

A high-tech helicopter has helped Onondaga County Sheriff Kevin Walsh chase down fugitives, airlift accident victims and spearhead search-and-rescue missions in the Syracuse region of Central New York since 1999. In 2012, Air-1 could be grounded by budget cuts.

Walsh's proposed solution? Slap a corporate logo on the Bell 407 chopper to raise ad revenue and keep her flying.

"[Police] have put up with doughnut jokes for our entire existence. I think we can tolerate jokes about the Price Chopper chopper or the Wegmans whirlybird showing up," Walsh said, referring to two supermarket chains. "I don't like the idea of our having to fund public services with private donations, but the option is not to have that public service."

While hawking naming rights for municipal stadiums, parks, mass-transit stations and other public entities is nothing new for the nation's cash-strapped cities, sponsorship deals with police agencies are much less common, and typically less lucrative.

On top of that, watchdog groups -- and many in uniform -- are wary about potential conflicts when law enforcement cozies up with advertisers, such as officers possibly looking the other way on matters involving corporate sponsors.

"I feel very confident my officers wouldn't be compromised," said John Kelly, police chief of Littleton, Mass. A town-approved $12,000-a-year contract with a grocery chain pays for one of Kelly's five patrol cars. In return, the cruiser has been adorned for nine years with a modest Donelan's Supermarkets bumper sticker.

Kelly said he's endured plenty of flak, but "my position is I have to give my officers tools to provide the necessary services our citizens paid for. At 2:30 in the morning, someone lying out on a local highway because of an accident really doesn't care who's paying for the cruiser or what it says on its side."

Russ Haven of the New York Public Interest Research Group fears the drive to find sponsorship arrangements in budget-strapped times "may in some instances seem unseemly or feel like it's going too far.

"When it comes to law enforcement, you have this additional layer of concerns," Haven said. "If the sponsor becomes a target of an investigation, does the public have confidence they'll be treated equally under the law?"

In Syracuse, the sheriff's budget woes in recent years deepened this fall when the County Legislature eliminated $591,000 in taxpayer aid in 2012 for the helicopter known by its radio call sign. Bought for $2.3 million, Air-1 costs around $500,000 on average to operate and maintain each year.

Walsh has appealed for private donations and hopes to secure federal grants to help pay for Air-1's four-pilot roster. Getting a commercial operator's license from the Federal Aviation Administration to allow him to charge fees for medical flights might come through soon, potentially raising $125,000 to $200,000 a year.

Selling naming rights could prove vital in filling the gap. Talks are under way with two potential sponsors who remain unidentified, and Walsh's administrative chief, John Balloni, hopes to add at least $100,000 a year in advertising revenue.

While conceding that Air-1 might have to stop operations in 2012, Balloni said: "There will be some revenue streams coming in, and we have full expectation we'll keep it in the air. The extent of our success in 2012 will determine how much we fly in 2013."