City accepts Stonegarden funds for OT, pickup trucks

The Nogales City Council accepted more than $1 million in funding through Operation Stonegarden at their meeting last Wednesday. Operation Stonegarden is a federal program that pays local officers for overtime shifts related to border enforcement.

The council voted, without discussion, to approve a $694,000 grant for overtime and mileage payments and a $507,000 grant to buy five four-wheel drive pickup trucks, 10 radar guns and five license plate readers. They also agreed to modify an earlier grant to add funding to purchase a drug analyzer.

The quiet acceptance was noteworthy because former Councilman Marcelino Varona, Jr., whose term on the council ended last year, regularly raised concerns about Stonegarden overtime grants, which ultimately cost the city money because they don’t cover the increased pension payments that officers can earn by working overtime hours under the program. In recent years, Varona repeatedly requested – to no avail – a report on how much the Stonegarden program costs the city.

While staying mum about its cost, the Nogales Police Department has made clear that it doesn’t want to see an end to the program, which helps officers earn more money and grow their pensions, while also providing NPD with equipment including patrol vehicles.

In 2019, NPD Lt. Robert Thompson told the council that the department “would not be able to actually support police functions” if the federal program were eliminated, saying NPD would have to return vehicles and equipment paid for by Stonegarden money. Thompson served for several months as an assistant to Deputy City Manager John Kissinger – himself a former NPD chief – and is now the acting city manager.

When the council approved the equipment grant last week, Mayor Arturo Garino noted the lack of comments from elected officials. “No discussion on this, I like that,” the mayor said, with a laugh.

New manager salary won’t exceed $150,000

In the latest installment in the city’s now-lengthy effort to hire a full-time city manager, the Nogales City Council indicated last week that it’s planning to cap the salary range for the position at $150,000 and pursue a “hybrid” recruitment strategy.

In 2019, as former City Manager Frank Felix neared the end of his tenure with the city, the council decided to up the salary range for the position to $135,000 to $160,000, with the thought that more money might attract more qualified applicants. The council eventually hired Eddie Johnson at the low end of that range with a $140,000 salary in January 2020, but Johnson was gone by May after clashing with elected officials.

In late 2020, council members initially suggested they wanted to hire a local candidate to fill the city’s top executive position. That effort apparently didn’t produce results, so the council turned to a staffing firm, which provided three candidates that could have filled the job on a temporary basis. But the council rejected the temp managers, too, saying the cost of hiring one was too high.

At the Feb. 3 meeting, Acting City Manager Robert Thompson said the city wanted to avoid the pitfalls of previous searches that turned up out-of-town candidates with high salary requirements or local applicants who weren’t properly qualified for the role.

“Typically when we do a broad search, we have a lot of people contending for the position. However when it comes down to punching numbers, those numbers are typically high,” Thompson said, seemingly in reference to the high salaries demanded by applicants from outside the local community. “When we go with somebody local, we don’t always grab an individual who meets all the criteria.”

He said the city needed to blend the two previous approaches in a “hybrid” effort to “find out what local talents we have, what external talents we have, and try to mesh those together to see what we can do.”

It wasn’t immediately clear what a “hybrid” search effort would look like, but Mayor Arturo Garino said the council would revisit the issue at its March meeting and asked Thompson to bring recruitment plans to that session.

City extends COVID sick leave for employees

The mayor and council approved a move to extend a program that allows municipal employees to take paid sick leave if they are quarantining with COVID-19 or caring for someone in COVID-19 quarantine.

City workers can take up to 10 days (80 hours) of paid leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, according to council documents, and the Feb. 3 action extends the FFCRA’s expiration from Dec. 31, 2020 to March 31.

According to the agenda for the council’s Feb. 3 meeting, 98 employees had already taken advantage of the paid sick leave provided under the act. That’s almost 40 percent of the city’s 258 total employees.

City Human Resources Director Carmen Fuentes said the move means that employees who have not used the FFCRA benefits or only used some of the time can use the program to take time off through March. Those who already used all their paid leave under the program won’t be granted additional time off.

City buildings to remain closed

City of Nogales buildings will remain closed to the public for another month, following a council vote at the Feb. 3 meeting.

The latest closure will last into March, meaning the city is on track to keep members of the public out of city buildings for an entire year. They first closed the doors in March 2020, in response to the arrival of COVID-19 in the local community.

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