Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Chopper may be grounded. (New Zealand)

SHAKY HEIGHTS: The northern Electricity Rescue Helicopter service anxiously awaits the outcome of a funding review by the Northland Regional Council.

The northern area will find out shortly if it will lose substantial funding for its Electricity Rescue Helicopter service, which could put it in jeopardy.

The Northland Regional Council is waiting on a due diligence report on the Northland Emergency Services Trust (NEST), owner of the two rescue helicopters covering the Far North, Whangarei, and Kaipara and Mangawhai regions, before deciding if it will continue to extend its commitment to the service.

If the council pulls out, the trust may find it difficult to maintain services, NEST chairman and council deputy chairman John Bain says.

With an annual turnover of $5.5 million, the trust relied heavily on a Northland Regional Council levy of $8.56 annually on each of its ratepayers, which has brought between $500,000 and $600,000 to NEST each year for the past two years.

Half of the operating costs funding comes from contributions, including from the council, Accident Compensation Corporation, Ministry of Health and Top Energy and Northpower, with fundraising and grants making up the remainder.

But several months ago there were calls for a due diligence investigation to be undertaken on the council's contribution, with the results due to be presented within days.

One of the councillors who called for the inquiry, Kaipara representative Graeme Ramsey, says while he has no concerns over a service Northland clearly needs, the council has a duty to look into the trust.

"Ratepayers are investing a substantial amount into the service and we have a duty of care to ensure NEST is being appropriately run and managed."

The service not only can ill afford to lose council funding, but increasing demands mean the trust has to urgently seek additional funds, Mr Bain says.

Former Kaipara representative and council chairman Mark Farnsworth was instrumental in the levy being introduced while in office. The Mangawhai resident says he is disappointed he simply wasn't asked about the set up, rather than the council calling for a due diligence inquiry.

"The service is critical to the north and needs a stable, reliable base rather than relying on hand-to-mouth fundraising. I can't understand why the new council is even considering dropping it," he says.

Mr Bain says: "This would have to be the busiest rescue helicopter operation in the North Island. There is no doubt our workload is climbing. We expect our patient numbers to lift by almost 6 percent in the next year which will push our annual flights to more than 700."

The two helicopters attend and transport victims of medical emergencies, road crashes, and search and rescue operations up to more than 300km out to sea.

"We already run on a shoestring," Mr Bain says.

And there's the constant challenge of raising funds from businesses and individuals to cover an area nearly three times that of the Auckland region, but with just one-tenth the population. The service is credited with saving 1700 lives since its inception in 1988.

Inquiry results will coincide with the newly launched 2011 Electricity Rescue Helicopter Appeal to raise $300,000.

Donations to the northern service can be made by visiting any Northland ASB Bank or making a one-off online payment to ERH Appeal – ASB Bank Account No: 12 3106 0046000 00.

- Rodney Times

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