Overtime payments made to Pima County Sheriff’s Department employees in recent years as part of Operation Stonegarden have been disproportionately awarded to those approaching retirement and created significant additional long-term pension obligations, according to a county analysis obtained by the Arizona Daily Star.

The findings were part of a review requested by Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, who labeled Stonegarden as a “financial detriment to local taxpayers” in a memo to the Pima County Board of Supervisors sent Tuesday. He added that he “cannot and will not recommend” future acceptance of the grant unless it’s modified by the federal agencies that oversee the program in areas close to the border.

“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,’” Huckelberry wrote.

“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 findings have added another layer of controversy to Pima County’s administration of the program, which provides local governments reimbursement for border security costs. The county voted in May to modify its acceptance of the grant to use $200,000 for humanitarian aid for asylum seekers after previously voting to halt acceptance of the grant. The county has not yet received a decision regarding its humanitarian aid request.

“The federal government needs to step up to the plate and reimburse us fully so our taxpayers are not the only ones bearing the burden of federal policy,” said Supervisor Sharon Bronson, a Democrat whose district includes Ajo and the U.S.-Mexico border.

Bronson added that she does not oppose county law enforcement handling border security issues, but that those missions need to be funded in a way “that is a less burden to our county taxpayers.”

“We’re just not being justly compensated,” Bronson said.

Reached by phone Tuesday morning, Sheriff Mark Napier maintained that the program has provided the department funding to address transnational crime threats, such as drug trafficking, human trafficking and humanitarian issues. He cautioned that he hadn’t seen a copy of the analysis but added that it’s hard to provide a dollar amount for the efforts completed through Operation Stonegarden.

“The premise here is that ‘this costs us that much, and therefore it’s wrong.’ It fails to recognize that there is value to us being up there, and there has been value to that for the more than one decade that the Board of Supervisors and Mr. Huckelberry have approved this grant.”

Operation Stonegarden was established to provide grants to state, local and tribal law enforcement to aid the federal government with border security. Pima County has received 44 grants in the last 12 years worth nearly $16.5 million, with roughly $10.5 million of that earmarked for overtime, mileage or travel and the rest for equipment, according to county documents.

The county’s analysis looked at overtime funding for Sheriff’s Department employees since the program began tracking specific allotments in December 2014. It did not include a period between November 2017 and April 2018 when the Board of Supervisors voted to halt accepting the grant.

The review found that 215 sheriff’s employees — 77% of which were deputy sheriffs — received $2.3 million in overtime costs associated with Stonegarden missions during the period, compared to $2.1 million they received for non-Stonegarden overtime during the same time frame.

The top 25 employees who received Stonegarden overtime funding had an average age of 44 and average length of service of 18 years, implying that almost all are approaching retirement eligibility.

In terms of the employees who are tasked with Stonegarden duty, Napier said that’s handled on a volunteer basis and the specific missions are dependent on evolving border needs.

He said there are a disproportionate number of older deputies working the overtime because “millennials are less inclined to work extra” because of where they are in their careers.

“I think that’s part of the reason that you see more veteran officers working the additional overtime is because they’re at a different place in their careers,” Napier said. “They perhaps have children, mortgages, etc., that some of the younger officers may not have.”

To evaluate the pension costs, the county used a sample of seven deputies, one lieutenant, and three sergeants, who had either retired or were approaching retirement.

They received $431,000 in Stonegarden overtime since December 2014, which equated to $2.4 million in additional retirement, meaning for every $1 of Stonegarden overtime, it resulted in $6 in pension liability costs.

The analysis also found that the county’s Public Safety Personnel Retirement System contributions increased 65% from $13.3 million to $21.9 million during the same timeframe.

In an interview, Huckelberry said it confirmed a long-held “inkling that funding overtime, particularly Operation Stonegarden, was a contributor to our excess pension obligation costs.”

He said he plans to send a letter containing the memo to the members of the Arizona’s congressional delegation.

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“In the memo, he recommended the Board of Supervisors not accept the grant, unless the federal government agrees to modify it, including such action as allowing local governments to do what they wish with the money. That includes earmarking the funding for indirect costs, or specifically hiring some deputies to focus on border security issues.

“If the federal government desires to purchase local law enforcement services, they can do that in a manner which is less costly for them and more fiscally prudent for local governments,” Huckelberry said.

A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

County supervisors’ reaction to the analysis ranged from questioning whether to accept the grant, to labeling the analysis as “political.”

Republican Steve Christy, who represents District 4, said it “seems there’s a lot of politics involved in this” and that to label it as a “wasted expense” is irresponsible.

He added that the Stonegarden grant also provides critical equipment funding to the Sheriff’s Department, and that he’s spoken with Napier and is confident that he is developing a plan to address any issues.

“I still believe the Stonegarden grants have tremendous value and are needed in our community and I’ll continue to support Sheriff Napier.”

Richard Elías, a Democrat who represents District 5, said he would advocate for not receiving the grant at all, and that the county should scrutinize similar grants in the future that only provide funding in overtime.

“We might find they’re less effective and more costly than we previously thought,” Elías said.

Napier said it would be a “significant error” if the county votes to stop the grant.

“We’re the largest border county in the United States,” the Republican sheriff said.

“To think we would walk away from this, apparently stating there is no public safety value in having it, I cannot concur with that. I do understand that there is a fiscal impact. But to suggest there is no benefit is simply flawed.”

Contact reporter Justin Sayers at jsayers1@www.oakparkart.com or 573-4192.

Reporter

Justin, a UA graduate, covers local government, focusing on Marana, Oro Valley and the Arizona Board of Regents. He previously worked at the Louisville Courier Journal, Arizona Republic and Hartford Courant and has received multiple awards.