US border-security cash leaves towns on the hook

Taxpayers foot bills for mileage, bigger retirement paychecks for officers
2009-11-16T00:00:00Z US border-security cash leaves towns on the hook Brady McCombs and Stephen Ceasar Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Star investigation

Federal grant money from Operation Stonegarden may seem like a windfall for the cities and counties that have eagerly accepted it.

But the funds have not been totally free - and in some communities taxpayers will be obligated for decades.

City and county governments had to foot the bill for mileage and maintenance - and employee-related expenses in some cases - during the first two-year grant cycle. Officials at the 10 state agencies included in the Arizona Daily Star's investigation couldn't provide actual costs and declined to estimate, but it likely cost an estimated $910,000 statewide, according to calculations done by the Star.

The money paid out in overtime - more than $7 million so far, with $12.5 million more expected in the next two years - won't be one-time payments, either.

The extra money will bump up taxpayer-paid retirement checks for hundreds of officers whose state retirement is based on their best three consecutive years of total compensation.

In the case of two Bisbee police officers who surpassed their base pay in Stonegarden overtime in 2007, their retirement will go up by half, resulting in a combined total increase to taxpayers of nearly $725,000 if each lives off his retirement for 20 years.

Cops can retire with full pensions after 20 years on the job regardless of age.

When officers go on Operation Stonegarden shifts, they're in their regular uniforms and use their agency's patrol vehicles.

During the first two-year grant cycle - when gasoline prices hovered between $3 and $4 a gallon - the federal government didn't provide any reimbursement for mileage and maintenance.

Agencies acknowledge it was a burden to pick up the tab - and their suggestions prompted the grant to begin covering these costs in the following grant cycle. But city and county officials do not know how much it cost.

The Star estimated the costs by calculating 12 percent of each agency's total overtime allocation during the first cycle, which is how the grant now reimburses for mileage and maintenance.

Using that calculation, it cost the 28 participating Arizona cities and counties nearly $500,000 to pay for mileage and maintenance during that first cycle, which ran from November 2006 to October 2008. This does not include the $410,000 it cost to cover employee-related expenses.

"It hurt," said Maj. Leon Wilmot of the Yuma County Sheriff's Office. "The fuel cost was a significant impact to us. It was almost to the point that we could not do that with our budget."

The Sheriff's Office was prepared to drop out of the program if the grant didn't start paying mileage, Wilmot said.

But it didn't have to quit because starting in the 2008 grant cycle - which began on Nov. 1, 2008, and runs through April 2010 - the grant provides reimbursement up to 12 percent of the total overtime allocation to pay for mileage and maintenance.

Even with the reimbursement, the wear and tear is noticeable, said Nogales, Ariz., Police Chief William Ybarra. "It takes its toll on our cars, getting them out there in certain areas that are nonpaved," Ybarra said.

Stonegarden does allow for the purchase of four-wheel-drive vehicles or all-terrain vehicles to patrol rugged areas, and five of the 10 agencies included in the Arizona Daily Star investigation have bought these types of vehicles with the funds.

To some, using city vehicles to work border security shifts is an unwise use of taxpayer money.

"This city has no money to spare," said Angelika Johnson, a Bisbee businesswoman and resident. But city and county officials say they view the money as an investment toward their community's safety.

"The concept and the mission of Stonegarden, the way it's working for us, I think it's a perfect marriage," said Capt. George Rodriguez of the Tucson Police Department.

About four months after then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced the launch of the first official grant cycle of Operation Stonegarden in December 2006, Arizona agencies began working overtime shifts.

The subsequent reimbursement process was littered with confusion and inconsistencies. In one example, not all agencies were paid for employee-related expenses, such as Medicare, Social Security and retirement, that employers are required to pay on any hours worked. These expenses can account for 20 percent to 43 percent of an officer's pay. Three of the 10 agencies included in the Star's analysis were not reimbursed: Tucson, Bisbee and Santa Cruz County. A fourth agency, San Luis, was partly reimbursed.

Finance directors at these agencies could not provide an exact total of how much it cost to cover expenses, but they did provide the employee-related-expense percentages during the time of the first grant cycle. Based on those, the Star estimates:

• It cost Bisbee $263,000 on the $627,000 it was reimbursed for overtime, more than any other Arizona agency in that cycle.

• It cost Tucson an estimated $66,000 on the $266,000 it was reimbursed.

• It cost Santa Cruz County an estimated $47,000 on $188,000 in overtime reimbursement.

• And it cost San Luis an estimated $34,000to pay for public-safety retirement on the $384,000 it was reimbursed for overtime.

The total of the costs accrued to these four agencies adds up to nearly $410,000. It doesn't include unreimbursed costs to any of the other 18 Arizona law enforcement agencies that received money during the grant cycle. The Arizona Department of Homeland Security does not know which agencies were reimbursed, and the Star investigation covered only 10 agencies due to the bulk of documents needed to be examined and delay in public-records requests.

Employee-related expenses were an allowable reimbursement during the first grant cycle, said Amy Bolton, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Homeland Security. But the grant guidance didn't provide instructions about them - for instance, that cities and counties needed to apply for them in their grant application as well as request them in reimbursement packets, Bolton said.

She could not explain why there was not more clear guidance about the expenses. The Arizona Department of Homeland Security declined to provide interviews with the director of the agency or the person most familiar with Stonegarden.

In the subsequent grant cycles, all agencies are being reimbursed for employee-related expenses, and Bolton's agency has representatives available during the grant process to explain such procedures, she said.

There has been confusion regarding equipment purchases, too. In 2008, the Tucson Police Department paid $3,500 for three people to get training on how to run a $22,000 telecommunications intelligence and analysis software system. Police did not know that training was not covered by the grant and were frustrated by the confusion, e-mails show.

"I'm not comfortable working this via e-mail approvals without a valid contract (copy or original) explaining exactly what expenditures are approved for us under Stone Garden," wrote Rick Prater, management coordinator of the grants administration section for the Tucson police, in a Feb. 4, 2008, e-mail to Michael Tucker of the Border Patrol and other Tucson Police officials. "Mike - can you give us a breakout of exactly what's covered under our allocation of this grant - overtime, training, equipment?"

At the time of the e-mail, the first grant cycle had been going for a year and a half.

In June 2008, the Nogales Police Department bought a Ford Expedition for $27,000 but was then told by Tucker of the Border Patrol in an e-mail that it would have to cancel the purchase. Two weeks later, an e-mail from the Arizona Department of Homeland Security approved the purchase.

In May 2008, San Luis police spent $60,000 on tactical equipment that included helmets, lights and weapons gear. The Arizona Department of Homeland Security denied reimbursement of $16,705 of the total because it was weapons-based gear not allowed under the grant.

Some departments have knowingly absorbed costs.

In February 2008, the Yuma County Sheriff's Department passed on $2,700 in costs for a radio system to the city of Yuma because it went over the grant allocation. In an e-mail explaining how that happened, Yuma sheriff's account clerk Michele C. Valdez wrote to Arizona Homeland Security: "Sorry for the mess, but I'm doing the best I can with what I'm given."

In 2008, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office covered nearly $9,000 over its $20,000 equipment allotment to buy 15 push-to-talk phone accessories, 15 hand-held GPS devices and 15 sets of night-vision goggles.

When asked if Operation Stonegarden was ready to be launched, Bolton said it depends on your perspective.

"Would you not roll it out until it was absolutely perfect? But then you might never roll it out," Bolton said. "Would you roll it out and then have some experience and revamp the program and revise the program? It's like a business question. I don't think anything is going to be absolutely perfect, because the conditions on the border change."

On StarNet: For the first part of the series and other border and immigration news, go to azstarnet.com/border

ABOUT THE SERIES

This is the second part of a two-day series. Sunday: Operation Stonegarden has vague goals, little oversight.

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or bmccombs@azstarnet.com. Contact reporter Stephen Ceasar at 573-4124 or sceasar@azstarnet.com.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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