UPDATE: Sheriff responds to Pima County analysis of Stonegarden costs

Fiscal impact of Operation Stonegarden

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - The Pima County Board of Supervisors has new research to consider in the latest development surrounding Operation Stonegarden.

What’s been described as free money from the federal government is apparently anything but free, according to the nearly 20-page memo and attachments Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry sent to the board. County staff broke down the use of Operation Stonegarden grant payments in recent years.

More than 200 employees of Pima County Sheriff's Department have earned some overtime through Stonegarden, according to the memo. It stated the average time of service for those employees was 18 years. Huckelberry cited data that found almost all of the 25 employees making the most this way are approaching retirement eligibility. He wrote:

Clearly, there is statistical data that supports the commonly held phrase “employees who want to retire ask for duty in Ajo to receive Stonegarden overtime”. In essence, the federal government is complicit in advancing a policy that potentially causes significantly increased long-term pension cost obligations to local governments, such as Pima County.

The county administrator referred to a statistic several times in the memo that staff found for every $1 covered by Operation Stone Garden for overtime, the county is required to cover approximately $6 in pension costs. Dollar amounts differ among employees, but the biggest overtime earner has collected nearly $210,000, according to the memo.

Huckelberry provided several potential solutions for the cost to the county. State law or federal policies could be changed. Reimbursement payments could be approved by the Arizona Department of Homeland Security. The sheriff could change how the needs of Operation Stonegarden are filled and hire new deputies to staff the positions instead of picking up the work with experienced employees on overtime.

Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier was not available Tuesday afternoon for comment. The following morning his department shared the following statement from him:

While it is clear that there are easily quantified costs incurred by the County by participating in the Operation Stonegarden Grant Program, to suggest there is no offsetting benefit to participation is logically flawed. The benefits of participation are not easily monetized, but are nonetheless present. It is clear that Pima County faces transnational crime threats in the form of drug and human trafficking that constitute an undeniable public safety threat to our citizens, and to migrants, which must be addressed. County leadership has apparently agreed to this premise having quickly approved the grant for more than a decade. Additionally, this grant has provided more than $6 million in much needed public safety equipment. This serves also to offset indirect costs. The Sheriff’s Department will continue to work with the Board of Supervisors to find a path forward that addresses concerns regarding humanitarian aid and indirect costs. What is not palatable is failing to recognize the public safety challenges we face as a border county, which require supplemental resources for the Sheriff’s Department to effectively address.

By Wednesday afternoon, Huckelberry shared a statement through the county communications office. It reads as follows:

A lot has changed in the past 10 years – Presidents, immigration policies and County sheriffs. How Stonegarden was administered or approved in the past is irrelevant. The Board of Supervisors and the County need to make decisions based on the most complete and accurate information currently available. As our recent analysis shows, and as I stated in my December 10th memorandum to the Board, the costs to the County outweigh the benefits. And until or unless the Sheriff presents a strategy for mitigating these costs and/or there is a change in federal funding law, I will recommend to the Board it no longer accept Operation Stonegarden grant funding. Currently, there are no Stongarden grants pending for the County. It is hoped the federal government will change this grant from overtime to straight time, thereby saving both federal and local taxpayers a lot of money.

The Pima County Sheriff Deputy Association is currently researching the issue and will share possible comments later this week.

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