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Did state delegate pay enough for helicopter stunt?

Maybe Jon S. Cardin should demand a refund.

Or maybe Baltimore should ask him for more money.

It all depends on how you determine the cost of using a police boat and helicopter for last August's mock raid staged to help the state delegate from Baltimore County propose to his girlfriend.

Yes, the ill-advised stunt in which cops stormed a boat and pretended to arrest his girlfriend, only to hand her an engagement ring, robbed citizens of valuable police resources and was arguably an abuse of power.

A sergeant was charged with misconduct — his case is pending — and Cardin apologized and asked the city for a bill. It was particularly embarrassing given that it happened at a time that crime at the Inner Harbor was making headlines and that the helicopter unit is now being targeted for closure because of a budget crisis.

Police said the Inner Harbor "boat raid" — successful because Cardin's girl said yes — lasted no longer than three minutes. After calculating the cost, based on 15 minutes of boat and chopper fuel and time, the city asked Cardin for $300.

He promptly wrote a check.

Many thought the bill absurdly low. City Councilman William H. Cole IV called it insulting. He complained that it costs him $70 to fill his car with gas, so how could $300 make up for a hovering helicopter and the use of the police marine unit?

But trying to determine whether the city demanded a fair price from Cardin has been a difficult task. Other agencies initially balked at providing the specific minute-by-minute costs of running their helicopters and boats. They preferred to release only yearly costs that include maintenance and salaries, numbers that make more nuanced analysis all but impossible.

But this week, Baltimore Sun reporter Frank Roylance wrote about a fruitless search for a boat missing off Middle River. The article detailed the cost of the search by the Coast Guard and state police, providing a way to compare expenditures with the manufactured raid on Cardin's boat.

The state police said the Trooper 1 helicopter spent 48 minutes on the Middle River search, costing taxpayers $2,000. That's $41.67 a minute. Two Coast Guard boats spent 12 hours on the search, each costing $1,617 an hour. For one boat, that's $26.95 a minute.

The city charged Cardin $300 for 15 minutes' use of the helicopter and a boat. That's a bargain compared with what it costs the state and feds on their real search this week. The state police helicopter costs $625.05 for 15 minutes and the Coast Guard boat $404.25 for the same time. That's a total of $1,029.30.

Of course, that is comparing the costs by using three different agencies using different equipment and different criteria for devising costs.

Still, the figures provide an interesting way of understanding the costs and whether Cardin was fairly billed. Had Cardin been billed $300 for three minutes of police time, the numbers might make more sense, and might even leave the delegate wondering if he deserves a refund.

Three hundred dollars for three minutes works out to $100 a minute, well above the $68.62 a minute for using both the state police helicopter and the Coast Guard boat. And we won't even talk about what it costs to fly the 65-foot Coast Guard Dolphin helicopter, two of which were used in the Middle River search.

That aircraft costs taxpayers $7,838 an hour to fly on a sanctioned mission. The Coast Guard's "outside government rate" adds a pension adjustment and depreciation to the bill, bringing the total to $9,855 an hour.

Cardin has said that a friend who has friends on the city police force helped set up the ruse. He's lucky his friends don't have friends with the feds. At $164.25 a minute, using a Coast Guard helicopter would have cost the delegate $2,463.75 for his 15 minutes.

And for that, his bride could have gotten an ivory lace Simona wedding gown from J. Crew.

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