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Lawmaker wants to curtail county powers over grant dispute
Pima County turned down federal money for border security

Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley (Capital News Service file)

Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley (Capital News Service file)

PHOENIX — Upset with a decision by Pima County supervisors, a southern Arizona lawmaker is trying to strip away their power to turn away federal law enforcement grants.

Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, said he is miffed by a 3-1 vote in September to turn away $1.4 million in federal dollars in an Operation Stonegarden grant.

Those dollars are designed to provide funds to local law enforcement for working with federal agencies to secure the border along international corridors.

Pima County has received more than $16 million over a dozen years. But Supervisor Ramon Valadez, who has supported prior applications, led the successful drive to reject the latest grant after blaming the Trump administration for undermining public confidence in local law enforcement and creating mistrust.

That action angered Finchem.

“It’s intellectually dishonest and utterly disingenuous for the Pima County Board of Supervisors to claim that they care about safe streets and safe schools to then strip the money away that helps to interdict that ... because they don’t like who’s in the president’s office,’’ he told Capitol Media Services, calling the vote a “juvenile temper tantrum.’’

And Finchem had particularly harsh words for Valadez for linking his views about Trump and border policy to allowing Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier to keep the dollars he had sought.

“That’s what I would expect a political hack to say,’’ he said.

Valadez, however, said he was blaming not only the Trump administration for fears that having the sheriff’s department involved in border security would result in some people in what he calls an “immigrant-friendly community’’ deciding not to report crimes to the sheriff’s department for fear that it could result in questions about people without documentation living there.

“Both sides are just as guilty,’’ he said, including immigration rights advocates. “They created a narrative and made people believe that they couldn’t call law enforcement for fear of immigration enforcement.’’

And Valadez dismissed Finchem’s comments about him, saying, “Consider the source.’’

Under current law, the supervisors have budgetary authority over all elected and appointed county officers.

HB 2001, filed Friday, would create an exception saying that supervisors “shall accept’’ any federal grants money “that are intended to supplement the budget of a law enforcement or prosecution agency.’’

Finchem defended putting those curbs on the power of supervisors, pointing out that under Arizona law, counties are political arms of state government.

“Counties are there to implement and executive state policy,’’ he said. “That’s why they exist.’’

Valadez said too much is being made of the loss of the funds.

“The sheriff is responsible for less than 5 percent of the border Pima County has with Mexico,’’ he said, with the bulk on the Tohono O’odham Reservation, and just 20 percent of the total land area.

And Valadez said most of the traffic stops for Operation Stonegarden were on state roads and freeways, which are the primary responsibility of the state Department of Public Safety.

Anyway, he said, while some of the federal cash paid for equipment, the majority was to pay for overtime for already hired deputies.

The Pima County Sheriff's Department does not patrol the Sells area, which is on the Tohono O'odham Reservation, and the loss of an Operation Stonegarden grant will not affect that area.

Deputy James Allerton, a spokesman for the department, said the loss of that overtime cash has had some effect in the more remote sections of the county where the additional dollars paid for more patrols.

Allerton said those additional operations already have been suspended in the Sells area. But he said some of the other added patrols continue, now funded with local dollars.

He also said that the federal dollars are needed for new equipment, like an infrared camera that can be used on aircraft for not just Stonegarden operations but also routine duties.

Finchem said supervisors should defer to the sheriff.

“He is the one who says, ‘I think I need this grant to be able to do X,’ ‘’ he said. “It’s his judgment.’’

Similarly, Finchem said if a sheriff wants to reject a grant because of strings attached the board should go along.

And Finchem said this isn’t about politics.

“This is a bipartisan thing about keeping our streets safe,’’ he said. “You don’t vote against the guys that are on the job, doing the job.’’

Valadez, however, sees the grant through a different lens.

“I don’t believe that this country is based on taking money because there’s a perception, whether or not it’s true, that their local law enforcement can’t be trusted to keep them crime-free,’’ he said.

Allerton said that Napier will make a new request for this coming budget year to put the county back into the program.

The outcome of that will depend on how the board votes. But board opposition could prove moot if Finchem’s legislation is adopted and the supervisors lose their power to turn away the dollars.

Only supervisor Steve Christy voted to keep accepting the funds. He said that a small group of activists was dominating the public debate.

“You do not represent the total feelings or desires of Pima County residents or even come close to representing a majority of our citizens,’’ he said. And Christy said Napier has repeatedly reassured the community his agency “does not and will not enforce immigration laws.’’

Sharon Bronson and Richard Elias voted with Valadez to terminate the contract, with Ally Miller absent from the meeting.

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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