Sometimes free things are too good to be true.
A 42-year-old Vietnam-era OH-58A Bell Kiowa helicopter, given to Newark for free from the U.S. Army in 2005 as part of a military surplus program, has cost the city more than $2 million to refurbish, maintain and operate, according to documents obtained by NJ Advance Media.
An examination of the sky-high bill shows that the Newark City Council has approved $1.13 million in maintenance contracts the last five years alone, including a $27,412 invoice to strip, apply corrosion coating, prime and paint the aircraft and the purchase of new rotor blades that cost $143,386.
The helicopter also has been equipped with a night vision system that allows pilots to see in the dark and a receiver to track stolen cars, despite the city’s budget problems which, most notably, forced then-Mayor Cory Booker to lay off 167 cops in 2010.
Flight logs provided by Newark show that the aircraft – based at a hanger in Kearny, N.J. -- is usually on the ground, typically flying on Friday and Saturday nights for 4-hour patrols.
Newark first asked the Defense Department for the helicopter in 2002 to help fight the growing epidemic of stolen vehicles and carjackings, Anthony Ambrose, then chief of police and the city’s acting police director, told NJ.com.
A Defense Logistics Agency spokeswoman said 577 helicopters have been distributed under the so-called “1033” surplus program since 1996, many of them similar to the one received by Newark.
Newark Police Director Eugene Venable did not return calls to NJ.com. Some of the money spent to finance the helicopter’s operation was covered with Homeland Security grants and drug forfeiture funds, but most of it came out of the city’s coffers.