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Pima accepts Stonegarden border funds, but still questions program's costs, accountability

The Pima County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to accept nearly $1.4 million in federal grant money under a program known as Operation Stonegarden, following a strenuous meeting that included more than three hours of public comment and almost another hour of debate. 

Supervisor Ramón Valadez switched his vote from two weeks ago, adding five conditions to the county's acceptance of the grant. The Democrat joined Republican Supervisors Ally Miller and Steve Christy in the 3-2 vote. The federal program provides border counties and cities with funding for overtime and mileage expenses for law enforcement who cooperate with U.S. border enforcement agencies.

Valadez reconsideration reversed a decision made on February 6, when the board voted 3-2 to reject the grant, which includes $1,191,000 earmarked for overtime and mileage, and another $237,967 reserved for equipment under the Pima County Sheriff's Department.

Supervisors Richard Elias and Sharon Bronson maintained their votes rejecting the grant. 

The about-face came despite comments from 38 constituents requesting that the board reject the grant, compared to only four asking the county to support the grant out of nearly a full house at the Tuesday meeting.

Valadez made an impassioned plea, speaking for several minutes about his views of the U.S. immigration system and the Trump administration's drive to push unauthorized immigrants out of the United States. 

"I get why you’re afraid; I’ve heard the same comments and I’ve heard the same vitriol, but I will tell you there’s more to this story," Valadez said. He said he had talked to many people over the last two weeks, but "by accepting this money, what are we changing?"

"Immigration is broken, and the people we’ve hired to fix it haven’t done a damned thing," Valadez said. "So, we’re stuck in a horrible situation." The Pima County Sheriff's Department has to respond when called by Border Patrol, he said, and the county has worked to recover money spent because of border issues.

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"We’ve been asking for some of the money, we don't agree with the immigration policy, so that leaves other questions," Valadez said. 

Valadez moved to add five conditions to the federal grant, including a modification of the formula that guides employee-releated expenses, including pensions, and to request a reimbursement if the county has  been underfunded; an administrative process at the county to coordinate grants, so funding is monitored by a central staff; the creation of a data collection process so that arrests and seizures are "fully transparent and fully disclosed;" and a requirement that PCSD develop a written policy that adds guidelines under what circumstances deputies will work with federal officials, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, including how they work at traffic stops and checkpoints; and finally, the creation of a citizens board, that will be formed with two appointees per supervisor, with the idea of reviewing data and policy on a quarterly basis. 

Following the vote, one audience member yelled out "recall, recall." Later, another said to Valadez, "You don't understand." 

"We’ve heard dramatic testimony, and the stories are horrible, and the facts describe a borderlands that ultimately been violated repeatedly, and very few government people stand up and say it needs to change," Elias said. 

Questions remain regarding how the Sheriff's Department uses the money, and more importantly how a measure designed to fund joint efforts and coordination between U.S. Border Patrol and local police agencies may push deputies into enforce immigration law.

Sheriff Mark Napier defended the program, noting that the grant has been approved by the board since 2004. 

"Make no mistake, this grant is about public safety, this is grant that allows my department to have a greater presence in the rural areas of the county, and the areas near the border. We are not in the business of proactive federal immigration enforcement, that is not the role of my department, nor will it ever be," Napier said.

"We have rejected, and will continue to reject so long as I am your sheriff,  the idea of becoming a 287g department," he said, noting a program that allows local law enforcement to work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

"There is a lot of concern, but Operation Stonegarden is not about immigration, but about border security, we can dissociate one from the other," he said. "Approve Operation Stonegarden, and trust law enforcement officer to know the boundaries of their authority." 

Napier also referred to questions about the grant's effect on pensions and mileage costs. 

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"Does the grant cover every nuanced expense, no federal grant does," Napier said, but he said sheriff's deputies were "grateful" for the increased overtime." 

Napier agreed to the conditions set by Valadez, and said he could complete a policy review in a week.

Christy pressed Napier on this, "There are a lot of stipulation, taking away from the mission. Are you comfortable with implementing all of these stipulations?" 

"Yes we are, there are policy issues that we can embrace and pursue," said Napier. "I don’t see these at cross-purposes, to make sure we’re transparent and responsive to the community." 

Napier bristled though at suggestions that deputies had engaged in racial profiling, saying that he was bothered by the suggestion that deputies had a "mass propensity to engage in an unconstitutional and repressive" acts. "I don’t believe this and I reset that assertion," Napier said. 

Billy Peard, the staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, argued that the board should continue to reject the grant's funding. "There’s been some suggestion that this debate has been infused with emotion and people’s sentiments with relation to Trump," he said. "There’s been some suggestions that enforcement, those are meritorious goals, but the reality is Stonegarden’s history belies those goals. It doesn’t achieve those goals." 

"If you are going to change your vote, and we hope you don't, but if you do, insist on guidance," Peard said. 

In response to questions about whether deputies were stationed at checkpoints, Napier said that the agency doesn't have a policy against it, but that he was "not comfortable" with deputies staging there. "It could be for legitimate reasons, but the appearance is troubling," the Republican sheriff said. 

Jessica Rodriguez, an organizer for the Southside Workers Center, asked Valadez to not change his vote. "We have loved ones who are undocumented, who at a higher risk of being deported," she said adding that people might be less likely to report crimes out of fear. 

Rachel Wilson, an immigration attorney, told the board that she has clients picked up under Operation Stonegarden in joint operations between U.S. Border Patrol, and PCSD, including one man who was pulled over by deputies so "Border Patrol could check their documents." Her client was arrested and is facing deportation, she said. "This was in Tucson, not in a rural area, the real people affected by Operation Stonegarden are hardworking people who are separated from their families." 

Brad Johns, a retired IBM engineer, told the board that "In my view, one of the essential roles of Pima County is enforcing public safety," he said. "These costs have been borne for years, and I think there’s a way to find this, fund this money, given all the other revenue sources we’ve got here." 

Carmen Estrada implored the board to reject the funding, asking Valadez pointedly, "How many people will deported because of your direction decision today?" 

"More police officers does not mean more community safety," said Zaira Livier. "Criminalization of immigrants and incarceration in Pima County go hand in hand." 

The decision to reject the grant two weeks ago set off a flurry of memos as PCSD officials tried to argue for the program's benefits, while County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry noted a November 2017 report from Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General regarding the administration of Operation Stonegarden, and questioned regarding how PCSD uses the money, and how the program affects pension costs.

For more than a decade, county officials have accepted the grant's funding, taking in more than $7.2 million in funding in just the last five years, according to the Arizona Department of Homeland Security, which manages the grant program under U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The program is offered as a boon to border counties by covering costs for overtime overtime expenses, mileage and fuel costs for patrols, and equipment, allocating $55 million annually for nearly two dozen law enforcement agencies in counties along the Canadian and Mexican border, including about $11 million to Arizona.

"There's a slew of Pima County sheriff's officers, just past the checkpoint east of the Tohono O'odham Nation, just waiting to cite people; they've cited me," said Ryan Kelly, who asked the board to have a "backbone" and stick with their original vote. 

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Laiken Jordahl, a staff member of the Center for Biological Diversity, said he attended the Border Security Expo in San Antonio earlier this year and was "truly shaken by what I learned." 

"Federal funding for Stonegarden is set to balloon, and it's not the same program that it was under the Obama administration, it is far more expansive and expressive than it was before," he said, and asked the board to continue to reject federal funding. 

A member of the Marana town council, Roxanne Ziegler, spoke and said that she was "appalled" at what she had turned into a "racist discussion." 

"Sheriff Napier, the Border Patrol, it's unreal what goes on down there, we need to approve the Stonegarden grant," Ziegler said. "With all due respect to Mr. Elias, you brought the Trump administration into this," she said, adding that it was "undisputed" that numbers have gone down because of President Donald Trump. "They have decreased for illegal aliens going across — the drugs, the gangs — because you have the good men of the Border Patrol, and the good men of the sheriff's department protecting our people." 

Pima County's Stonegarden grant is linked to grants for six other cities, including one for Marana's police department. 

During the February 6 meeting, Elias characterized the funding as "militarizing our border," adding that by accepting the grant, the board would be putting the department "in the position of starting to enforce immigration law on the border."

"And I think it's a bad move for us," Elias said.

Napier said he was surprised by the decision. "We didn’t anticipate the need to discuss this, and we’ll try to fix this," he said. "We had operations since 2004, as part on an ongoing grant that has been in place for 14 years, on a consent agenda," Napier said.

"The grant goes directly to the sheriff's department to supplement our efforts at interdictions in cooperation with our federal partners," Napier said, adding that county officials "maybe had a lack of clarity" surrounding the grant's funding.

In a memo to Valadez from February 7, Napier defended the program and asked the board to reconsider, noting that the funding for a video downlink system system that would allow deputies on the ground to see live video from a departmental airplane, worth nearly $122,000, would be forfeited without Stonegarden funding.

Napier said that most Stonegarden operations are "conducted in rural and remote parts of Pima County, including Ajo, Three Points, Sasabe, Arivaca, and State Route 83" allowing deputies to "deploy into these rural areas more frequently than otherwise possible during regular patrol shifts," Napier said. "This helps the Sheriff’s Department provide a stronger presence to deter criminal activity and prevent the victimization of Pima County residents. Furthermore, this increased presence helps detect and deter traffickers and prevent the victimization of illegal entrants at the hands of smugglers," he said.

In 2017 alone, deputies deployed 400 times, conducting more than 4,794 stops, arresting 476 people, including 164 for felonies and 312 for misdemeanors, Napier said. Under Stonegarden, deputies also seized thousands of pounds in marijuana, methamphetamine and cocaine, along with 19 illegal weapons, and 71 vehicles used in illegal activities, he said.

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In his own memos, Huckelberry outlined a potential problem with Stonegarden that he noted during the meeting: the program does not appear to cover the county's pension costs.

In his memo, Huckelberry wrote that for every dollar of overtime, the county has to chip in another 75 cents into the state retirement fund. He also noted that the county may be losing money on mileage reimbursements, adding that while Stonegarden pays out 44.5 cents per mile, the county spends about 76 cents per mile on marked law enforcement vehicles, and 92 cents per mile for a four-wheel drive vehicle.

In a memo, Sheriff's Department Chief Karl Woolridge responded that all employer-related expenses are covering under the grant.

Woolridge's memo did show that the county was losing money on mileage reimbursements.

Deputies drove 414,931 miles under the last two grants, and the county received $184,644, which means county spent between 130,703 to $197,092, depending on which vehicles were used.

Woolridge also noted that the rejection of the grant means that six other "sub-recipient" grants will also be defunded, affecting six other agencies, including the Tucson Police Department, the Sahuarita Police Department, the Oro Valley Police Department, Marana Police, and the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

Woolridge quotes Kristina Grys, the coordinator for Operation Stonegarden, who said that according to guidance from U.S. Border Patrol's headquarters, the grant is "holistic."

"If Pima Board of Supervisors votes 'no' against accepting this grant from the federal government, all of the Pima County sub-recipients/friendly forces will be impacted," and a vote against the grant means that the other agencies will lose a total of $3.2 million for overtime and equipment needs, "from other agencies whom all voted to support [Stonegarden.]"

"Richard Elias certainly framed the issue, how we're doing the border now, is much different under the current administration," said Bronson. "Over the years, I think we weren't paying attention, but the last year has been a wake-up call."

Bronson worried that the Sheriff's Department doesn't have a firm grasp of overtime and equipment spending, and noted the OIG report which said that FEMA and CBP "did not meet their oversight responsibilities to monitor Stonegarden grantees, issue guidance and approve costs, and demonstrate program performance."

The OIG said that FEMA did not have "accurate financial data to identify grantees that require additional monitoring." Moreover, neither agency had issued guidance or reviews of proposed Stonegarden funding, meaning that more than $14.6 million could have been used by local agencies to cover their own costs. Finally, neither FEMA nor CBP had "collected reliable program data or developed measures to demonstrate program performance" from more than $531.5 million awarded under Stonegarden since 2008, the OIG said.

"What does this program cost local taxpayers? Great, we've got the grant, and then arrests are made, what happens then? Is this another incidence of cost-shifting where the feds leave costs to local jurisdictions?" Bronson asked.

"Those costs, the courts, the jail, the county attorney, the public defender, 60 percent of our property taxes are spent on the on justice and law enforcement system and that just keeps rising," Bronson said.

The decision also surprised deputies like Mo Othic, who asked to finish the last three years of his career at the Ajo substation, an outpost for the department about 111 miles west of Tucson and just 43 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, based on his ability to earn overtime under Stonegarden.

This would mean leaving his wife and two teenaged sons behind in Tucson while he lived in a newly-purchased travel trailer, but the decision also came with the ability to work overtime for the department and earn thousands above his usual salary just before retirement, when the last three years of deputy's career, or their "high three," sets their pension at 50 percent of their salary.

For Othic, the extra money is important because he's dealt with several health issues over the last five years, including a kidney transplant, he said. However, after nearly a year, Othic may try to transfer back to Tucson because of the board's decision.

TucsonSentinel.com spoke with Othic via Facebook chat because he was still recovering from throat surgery.

Othic said that most of the work was traffic going and coming from Rocky Point, and that in Ajo, deputies have few calls to handle, but with Stonegarden, deputies would work with Border Patrol officials to make traffic stops and seize hundreds of pounds of drugs, or work along the border looking for people loading up vehicles with drugs. Deputies also try to spot people trying to smuggle money, guns and ammo in Mexico, Othic said.

While the overtime was not guaranteed, and sometimes the funding ran out before the year's end, Othic said that the extra overtime meant he could "retire at a higher rate when it's time."

"This money helps deputies and their families since we are not allowed OT [overtime] from the department and we haven't seen pay raises in years," Othic said.

Othic estimated that he could lose up to $32,000 per year if the Stonegarden grant was not accepted, and said that he would likely try to transfer back to Tucson.

"We are losing quality deputies with very good skills to other agencies and the Stonegarden money was one incentive that we still had. We have bent over backwards to help come under budget and now they took this away which basically costs them nothing," Othic said.

Sgt. Jason Rockwell was equally frustrated by the decision, and argued that board members had made the decision in part because of a pending lawsuit over the pay structure for deputies.

"The timing is very clear, but this is my belief that the timing fits. They just got served with a lawsuit, and then there's a program that allows for off-duty deputies to earn some money and they remove that as well," Rockwell said. "It's my belief."

Rockwell estimated that without access to Stonegarden's funding, he would miss out two to three shifts per month, worth around $6,000 to $8,000 per year, he said.

In recent months, Sheriff Napier has sought to change the department's pay structure from an older pay system based on longevity that has never really been fulfilled by the Board of Supervisors to one structured around merit-based pay.

Napier disputed the idea that the Board had intentionally denied the grant funding over a fight for additional pay. "I don't believe that the Board of Supervisors acted in a manner designed to be punitive toward the deputies, they had what they felt were legitimate concerns on how that money is spent."

"They have concerns. I don't agree, but I don't think it's because of the pay issue," Napier said.

Rockwell argued that not only was Operation Stonegarden a good program for deputies seeking to earn more money despite a lack of pay raises, but that the program was "a mutually beneficial program" with a benefit to national security allowing more officers to deal with border security issues.

Unlike other "force multipliers," including programs to use U.S. National Guard troops to patrol the border, Operation Stonegarden means that sheriff's deputies, who are more familiar with the area can enhance the ability of those working border-related issues, he said.

This includes efforts at the Border Patrol checkpoint, including the one on Highway 86 near Three Points, where deputies can coordinate with Border Patrol, he said, to investigate warrants and look for drivers under the influence.

"We’re not going to sacrifice the quality of service because we’re upset about pay issues, but at some point, the frustration is going to manifest somewhere," Rockwell said. "When someone calls 9/11, we’re going to do our best, but are we going to be able to keep up with our best?"

There also signs that Stonegarden operations blur the line between the U.S. Border Patrol and the Sheriff's Department.

In an email sent out to supporters, Billy Peard, the ACLU attorney, asked people to contact Valadez, and convince the supervisor to maintain his earlier vote, and argued against accepting the federal grant.

"Operation Stonegarden brings with it serious concerns about civil liberties and racial profiling. At times, Operation Stonegarden opens the door for Border Patrol to investigate a motorist under circumstances where it would be legally barred from acting alone," Peard said. "The ACLU has received numerous complaints by U.S.. citizens and others who were harassed and detained for lengthy traffic stops in which the Border Patrol rolled up right behind the Sheriff deputy – a hallmark of Stonegarden assignments."

"Stonegarden is not, at its core, about joint operations for drug interdiction or tracking down human traffickers, those operations are incidental, the program may even have some benefit in that regard, but the primary purpose is traffic stops that have little to no bearing on traditional border enforcement," Peard said.

In his letter to the board, Peard asked the board to discontinue the program, or barring that, delay a final decision until officials could provide "more thorough information" regarding concerns that the Border Patrol uses sheriff's deputies as pretextual stops that otherwise could not happen under the agency's limits.

Peard noted that deputies "routinely station themselves at Border Patrol checkpoints during Operation Stonegarden deployments" potentially violating the 4th Amendment. While Border Patrol has been given the ability to stop people at checkpoints for the purposes of temporary immigration checks, other officials are limited in their ability to set up checkpoints for detecting "evidence of wrongdoing."

"The mere presence of PCSD deputies at a Border Patrol checkpoint taints the whole enterprise because it converts a limited-purpose checkpoint into one whose primary purpose is general law enforcement," Peard argued, noting that according to PCSD's documents, the department spent $12,665 on overtime during a three week period in 2017, estimating that as much as 15 percent of Stonegarden funds were devoted to keeping deputies at Border Patrol checkpoints.

Moreover, as Peard noted in his letter, Stonegarden "exists in large measure because it provides the Border Patrol additional justifications to stop motorists on the highway."

"By enlisting the cooperation of the PCSD, the Border Patrol can investigate and question motorists under circumstances that would be impermissible if they were acting alone," Peard said.

Napier rejected this idea.

"Operation Stonegarden is not about the adoption of federal immigration responsibilities," he said. "I have 500 sworn officers to patrol 9,200 square miles and there are nearly 4,000 Border Patrol agents in the Tucson Sector, I don't have the staff, or the inclination to enforce federal immigration rules," Napier said.

In data provided to TucsonSentinel.com by the ACLU, from January to September 2017, nearly 22 percent of those arrested by deputies under Stonegarden were picked up for immigration violations. About 54 percent of people were arrested for misdemeanors, and about 24 percent were arrested for felonies. 

Only about 13 percent of motorists stopped were cited, a number far below similar figures from Tucson police who cited motorists 64 percent of the time, Peard said.

"We still have questions about what motivated a particular traffic stop. There's no paper trail we can see," said Bronson.

And, there may not be a clear policy on how deputies can disentangle themselves from Border Patrol operations.

As part of a potential lawsuit, filed by Terrance Bressi, who was arrested by a PCSD deputy at a BP checkpoint, a department official responded to a request for training records by sending a handwritten note back, noting that "you will not find training rules and regulations or guidance material regarding Operation Stonegarden, as our training center has no documents."

"We have a responsibility to demand transparency and accountability, and we really need a cost-benefit analysis that clearly proves that the program benefits the taxpayers of the community," said Bronson. "There should be metrics that show that and I'm not seeing that right now."

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier speaks to the Board of Supervisors in support of Operation Stonegarden, a federal grant that would provide around $1.4 million in funding for equipment and overtime.