The Nogales Police Department says it has become reliant on a federal program that’s sent millions of dollars to the department since 2008 for border enforcement work.
“We would not be able to actually support police functions” if the federal Operation Stonegarden program were eliminated, NPD Lt. Robert Thompson told the city council on Nov. 13.
Thompson, who is currently serving as the acting deputy city manager, added that NPD would have to return “up to $2 million in equipment,” including vehicles paid for by federal funds, if the program were halted.
Operation Stonegarden is a federal program administered through the Arizona Department of Homeland Security that pays local police departments for overtime shifts related to border enforcement, as well as for equipment.
NPD has received money under the program since 2008. In 2019, the city signed off on an $817,000 Stonegarden grant.
The program is popular among police officers because it pays for overtime, allowing officers to increase their earnings and boost their pensions.
But it’s also a source of concern. While the Stonegarden money pays officers for the overtime shifts, it doesn’t cover future pension liabilities created by those payments.
Thompson’s comments at the Nov. 13 meeting came after Councilman Marcelino Varona, Jr. added an item to the agenda to discuss those liabilities.
“Every dollar that’s going into a police officer’s pocket is being submitted to (Arizona Public Safety Personnel Retirement System) as a wage with a contribution,” City Finance Director Jeanette Parrales told the NI.
“There’s no cost now, like I say, we’re paying out a dollar, the state is sending us back a dollar. But that dollar has an impact in the future.”
In the late 2000s, some police officers in Bisbee logged so many Stonegarden hours that they doubled their annual pensionable salaries. As officers began to retire and the city’s population shrank, Bisbee had to pay 60 percent of its police officer salaries into the pension fund to pay down its unfunded liability in Fiscal Year 2014.
At the Nov. 13 meeting of the Nogales City Council, Parrales gave council members graphs showing that the city could save hundreds of thousands of dollars in coming years if it eliminated the Stonegarden program.
But Thompson cautioned the council against cancelling the deal.
“It would hinder the operations of the Nogales Police Department,” he said. “We would be putting ourselves in jeopardy.”