A hotly contested border security grant with a new provision to provide humanitarian aid to arriving migrant families is set to go before the Pima County Board of Supervisors Tuesday.
Operation Stonegarden is a federal grant designed to support cooperation and coordination between border agents and local law enforcement agencies by funding joint efforts to secure the U.S. border. Grant funds are used to pay for overtime, equipment and mileage costs.
The county has been accepting Stonegarden grants for the past 12 years and has received roughly $16 million in funding.
Last fall, fueled by community outrage over new federal border policies and family separations, the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted to reject the funds. At the time, the department had already spent roughly $637,000 of the $1.19 million it was awarded, and the remaining $793,000 was reallocated to other law enforcement agencies, many of which function inside Pima County, according to a memo from Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.
Despite last year’s debacle involving the funds, Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier applied for this year’s round of grant funding and was awarded $1.2 million for overtime, mileage and travel, and an additional $595,600 for equipment, including the purchase of several license plate readers that will be mounted on patrol vehicles and constantly collecting information.
In early March, Huckelberry sent a memo to the supervisors saying he’d instructed the county’s Grants Management and Innovation Department not to accept any grants that don’t contain a clear indication that indirect costs can and will be reimbursed, which appeared to signal the end of the Sheriff Department’s chances for receiving funds going forward. Indirect expenditures include wages, salaries and fringe benefits.
But in the memo sent to supervisors on April 17, Huckelberry changed course, encouraging supervisors to approve the grant and suggested backing out a percentage of the personnel services side of the grant to cover indirect costs, as well as to use the money to pay for vaccines and provide funding for nonprofits assisting with the influx of families arriving in Pima County.
Huckelberry told the Star that there’s federal guidance that allows for repurposing a portion of the Stonegarden money for humanitarian aid.
Since January, the county has provided more than 1,000 doses of vaccines at a cost of at least $15,850. Between supplies, vaccines and additional staff time, public health expenditures for arriving migrant families are anticipated to total $150,000 through the end of February 2020.
The remaining reallocated money would be directed to the county’s Outside Agency Review Committee to increase funding for established nonprofits to help strengthen the county’s social service safety net, the memo said.
In a separate memo sent April 23, Huckelberry told the supervisors that the county would be applying for a Stonegarden grant for Unaccompanied Children and Families on the Southwest Border, which would pay for food, water, hygiene products, medicine, supplies, transportation costs and temporary housing for arriving migrants.
The two Stonegarden grants must be accepted together, but the board will have to request the reallocation of funds as a separate measure, Huckelberry said. State and federal agencies will also have to provide approval to reallocate the money.
Despite the addition of the humanitarian aid component, local group Justice Alliance: Indivisible Southern Arizona is still opposed to Stonegarden funding being used in Pima County, said co-founder Kristyn Randel.
“This is an unfair hostage situation,” Randel said.
“If Mr. Huckelberry wants to care for asylum seekers, I welcome the aid as someone who has raised over $15,000 in fundraising for the cause in the last few months and has spent countless hours cooking, cleaning and caring for these families,” Randel said, adding that the county can find money in a way that also doesn’t “prey on the most vulnerable in our community.”
Justice Alliance’s other problems with the funding still stand, Randel said. The group had previously expressed concern about the money being used to purchase vehicle-mounted license plate readers, which will upload information into a database of which many agencies — public and private — have access to.
Collaboration between the Sheriff’s Department and Immigration and Custom Enforcement also makes residents hesitate to call the Sheriff’s Department when they are victims or witnesses in crimes, fearing deportation or incarceration, the group argues.
In April, the Community Law Enforcement Partnership Commission, of which Randel is a member, voted 6-4 to recommend that the county reject the funds.
The commission was established in September to review and make recommendations on grants and grant applications received by the Sheriff’s Department.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
If the supervisors reject the Stonegarden funding, Huckelberry says they should direct at least $500,000 be set aside for Sheriff’s Department overtime and at least $2.24 million for capital equipment previously purchased with Stonegarden funds, according to the memo.
If the county no longer participates in Stonegarden, the federal government could ask that the county return equipment purchased with Stonegarden funds, which means the county would have to buy replacement equipment at an approximate cost of $2.3 million, Huckelberry told the Star.
That money, combined with the rejected $1.8 million and $500,000 in overtime adds up to an economic value of $4.6 million to Pima County, Huckelberry said.
Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson, who previously voted to repeal the funds, said that many of her previous concerns have been resolved, but she has a big decision to make before Tuesday’s vote.
After the Department of Homeland Security released an inspector general’s report last year, Bronson said she had concerns about transparency, efficacy and lack of accountability. In the time since, all but one of her concerns have been resolved and the final one is being addressed.
What hasn’t been resolved, Bronson said, is the issue of dubious traffic stops by Pima County Sheriff’s deputies assisting at border checkpoints.
After the Board of Supervisors voted to terminate the use of Stonegarden last fall and the remaining funds were returned, Napier said that he was no longer going to deploy deputies to checkpoints, according to Bronson.
“As far as I understand at this point, they are not being deployed, but we no longer have Stonegarden,” Bronson said. “He said he wouldn’t, but how do you hold him accountable to that statement? So that’s a concern.”
The Border County Coalition, of which Bronson is the Pima County representative, met with high-level Border Patrol agents and the director of the Arizona Department of Homeland Security to discuss their concerns about indirect costs. Bronson said her understanding is that the county can apply to be compensated for indirect costs and if she can verify that, the concern about indirect-cost reimbursement goes away.
Bronson said one of the reasons to consider accepting the funds is because the money will stay in Southern Arizona, largely in Pima County, regardless of whether it goes to the Sheriff’s Department, given that other local law enforcement agencies are accepting it.
“The money is going to be here whether we like it or not,” Bronson said. “So that begs the question, do we want to accept it and put some conditions upon that acceptance.”
Bronson said her district has 125 miles of shared border with Mexico and in speaking with residents in rural communities, such as Ajo, Three Points and Sasabe, people are afraid to leave their homes unattended because they’ll be broken into.
Ranchers have told her that they always leave one family member behind because of the drug, human and weapons trafficking in the area.
“There’s a real public-safety concern,” Bronson said. “Stonegarden funds in the past have been used to address that type of trafficking.”
Bronson said she still has concerns about the obtrusive nature of the proposed license plate readers, and another factor to take into consideration is that if the money is rejected the county will have to give back the equipment purchased using previous Stonegarden funds.
“That means our taxpayers have to replace it, and at today’s cost, not the cost when it was acquired,” Bronson said.