April 18, 2012 Edition

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Questions rise over
helicopter, plane swap

Gloria Wilkerson
Staff Writer

Mayor Don House told the city council that a lot of inquiries have been made about the possible sale of the city's airplane, which they had hoped to sell but have not been able to find the paperwork needed for the transaction.

"We have not been able to find anything in the minutes of former council meetings about the purchase or about swapping a helicopter for the plane," House said. "The helicopter we swapped is still in our name and the plane is not. It is still in the name of the people we got it from."

If the helicopter causes damage, the city is liable because it is still registered to the city.

According to Alderman Michael "Button" Wallin, neither the helicopter nor the plane has been airworthy since a few days after the trade because of mechanical problems.

At one point the city had two helicopters, according to Alderman Dirk Davis. "We bought one to spray for mosquitoes, and the other one was bought for parts. We ended up using them both to spray."

The helicopters were purchased for approximately $10,000 each. When hangar space was no longer available, the pilots who did the spraying refused to fly the aircrafts because they had been setting out in the weather. One of the choppers was towed and damaged in the move, but was repaired with money paid by the insurance company and later sold for $92,000.

Wallin, who was chairman of the mosquito committee at the time, said both choppers had just been setting and rotting at that point, leaving the city without anything to use to spray larvicide.

"We needed something quick for mosquito control," said Alderman Dirk Davis.

An even trade was made, the remaining helicopter for a 1964 Piper multi-engine airplane. The helicopter was flown from Walnut Ridge to Bono, but is not flyable today and hasn't been since the trade, said Wallin.

The swap was discussed at a city council meeting even if it wasn't in the minutes, he added.

City Clerk Carolyn Hayes said the council discussed trading the helicopter in the spring of 2008, but no action was taken. The mosquito committee discussed and approved the trade and several councilmen remember talking about a possible trade.

"The paperwork was done but not sent in because engine trouble kept both aircrafts grounded," Wallin said. "I planned to have the plane repaired and then send in the papers. I was lax in that regard, but it was an honest mistake."

"We (the mosquito committee) were trying to do a good thing for the city."

Mayor House was not in office at the time these events took place.

The trade is not a legal transaction if it is not an official trade approved by the council, House said.

"The paperwork has to be done and anything sold or traded in the amount of $5,000 or more has to be approved by the council as set by city ordinance," Mayor House said.

"We need to get this all cleared up, get all the questions answered. I have asked the city attorney to find out what we need to do to be in compliance."

House also said he will keep the public informed, and that the entire episode could be a series of innocent mistakes.

"We need to know why we traded a $100,000 helicopter for a $20,000-$50,000 plane," said Alderman Wendell Jones.

"The city had the plane insured for $60,000 in 2008," Wallin said. "It was licensed for the first year we had it in 2008, but was grounded almost immediately after we got it here."

He told the council that a helicopter or airplane is only worth what you can sell it for, and the value of the city's plane is less now than it was before because it is a twin-engine plane and uses a lot more fuel than a single-engine plane and the cost of fuel is much higher now than it was then.

Mayor House said that he has notified the FBI because this is an FAA matter, and they notified the state police. He said the state police will follow through to determine if there was any wrongdoing.

State auditors will audit the city this year and the council wants to have this all cleared up by then.

The council voted to give city attorney Adam Weeks a month to research the problem and try to find a solution, including whether or not they need to get the helicopter back.

According to Mayor House, following last week's council meeting, Weeks has been working with Tony Miles, the man who traded the plane for the city's helicopter. Miles has retained an attorney, and House said that both attorneys hope to work out the legal possession of the helicopter and the airplane.

House also said the state auditors have agreed to hold off on their audit until the city can get this problem resolved.

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