BISBEE — While the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Stonegarden program provides pay for additional deputies to help stop drug and human smuggling, added retirement costs can be a drain on future county finances.
During Tuesday’s meeting of the Cochise County Board of Supervisors, sheriff’s deputy Lt. Ken Foster asked for approval of a $650,000 grant from DHS to provide overtime pay, fuel, mileage and employee related expenses (EREs) for deputies wanting to take advantage of the extra duty pay.
The extra deputies on the road under Stonegarden provides an extra level of law enforcement oversight and allows a 24/7 coverage of the expansive, 6,200-square mile county, explained Foster.
“It provides a higher quality of service to the county by enabling the Sheriff’s office to specifically deal with ongoing crimes and issues associated with the border and provides overtime pay for extra targeted area details,” he told Supervisors Tom Borer, Ann English and Peggy Judd.
“Stonegarden operations and deployments allow the Sheriff’s Office to put more deputies on the road in high traffic areas and remote areas we normally are not able to regularly patrol due to a low staffing level,” added Foster. “Stonegarden deployments allows CCSO to schedule up to 10 additional deputies a day countywide to augment normal patrol shifts in providing services to the citizens of Cochise County.”
Currently the SO has 88 deputies patrolling the county in shifts, a number which has not increased in years, according to Sheriff Mark Dannels.
Though the grant pays for required Public Safety Retirement Personnel Retirement System (PSPRS) costs for these extra duties, if a deputy is within three years of retirement, the additional pay makes the county’s payout greater, creating a financial burden to county taxpayers for years, as was noted by English. She has long spoken about fiscal responsibility when it comes to Stonegarden and PSPRS.
“It’s frightening to me,” said English. “We have a $34 million deficit due to PSPRS. I know investments made by officials have failed. But, it concerns me that we’re putting people out on the road who may work too much. I want to keep our people alive and well out there. The lure of more money is real.
“It’s the elephant in the room. You worked with me to cut (Stonegarden) hours and I’m asking you to cut them down again. I know everyone wants to retire with as much money as they can, but we have to think about the county taxpayers, too.”
English suggested only allowing deputies with 10 years or fewer on the force to work on Stonegarden assignments to help stem the ever-rising costs of retirement payouts.
Foster replied, “I can’t punish a deputy who’s been with the county for years and not let him work. That’s how they will take it.”
Borer told Foster, “I support the Stonegarden program, but I share Ann’s concerns about how it hits us down the road. Maybe we need to look at the overtime schedule and see where we can cut it down.”
Dannels said, “We can’t exclude people from overtime. All officers are offered overtime. I object to any more restrictions. We didn’t create the problem with PSPRS, but we’re being vilified for what we didn’t do.”
English suggested DHS hire people to work such shifts and then PSPRS would not be a problem.
“I’m generally looked at as the target in these discussions,” added English. “You could ask the people in Washington on one of your trips.”
Dannels replied, “I can take that back to D.C., but I’m just one voice.”
English commented, “With reluctance, I will vote for this. But, I’m asked to vote on this again knowing it will hurt the county in the future. I hope the Sheriff’s office will sit down with us and see if we can utilize this program in the best possible way. The lure of money is stronger than the ability to be aware of their health. I will always question this.”
Judd made no comments and Borer offered no further statements on the matter prior to the vote in which the grant was unanimously approved.
English also reported a bill to help rural counties with PSPRS debts was killed. “The tax people said, if they give the counties one thing, they’ll want more,” she said.
The county could pay more towards that $38 million debt, but the supervisors are hamstrung by the expenditure limit, a state determined amount which the county can legally spend annually.
English also said the County Supervisors Association asked for the legislature to exclude PSPRS payments from the expenditure limit, but the state refused.
County Administrator Ed Gilligan said, “The unfunded liability has increased by $2.5 million. The county is exclusively on the hook for that.”
For the 2020-2021 budget, the expenditure limit increased by $775,000, Gilligan noted. With $300,000 in increased costs for health insurance for county employees, property, liability and workman’s compensation, which now includes post traumatic stress disorder, the upcoming budget talks will be painful.
The new budget could also be negatively affected as the spread of the coronavirus impacts tourism and sales tax, he said.
Douglas Port of Entry
The proposed Port of Entry west of Douglas was also discussed as a contract with Stantec Consulting Service, Inc., for $265,000 was unanimously approved to perform a master plan utility engineering study on the current Douglas’s wastewater and water systems.
The study will explore the expansion of the city’s current water system to the proposed port of entry site on James Ranch Road, near Douglas, as well as to the current U.S. Border Patrol station, the Cochise College campus, and Bisbee–Douglas International Airport.
System capacity, commercial and population growth, and costs will all be examined.
“The county is invested with local, state and federal stakeholders, including the General Services Administration, to build a new commercial port of entry on James Ranch Road,” said Deputy County Administrator Sharon Gillman.
“To that end, the county must demonstrate to these stakeholders and the public the return on this building investment. The engineering plan will provide detailed, multi-layer analyses, estimates, and recommendations to expand current Douglas water and wastewater services to the proposed port of entry, with the potential for ancillary services and growth.
“In addition, the board will use the engineering plan to support applications for alternative funding resources for this major project.”