Border sheriffs feel snubbed on security funds

State took most of $110 million pie, says no one being left out

12:25 AM CDT on Friday, July 6, 2007
By KAREN BROOKS / The Dallas Morning News

HIDALGO COUNTY, Texas – Running for re-election, Gov. Rick Perry repeatedly praised border-county sheriffs and their deputies for being "on the front lines" of a violent battle to keep criminals out of Texas.

But a year later, those on the front line feel as if they're on the back burner.

Only a small portion of about $110 million approved by lawmakers this year – as a cornerstone of the governor's legislative agenda – will go directly to border counties for day-to-day operations.

Instead, about $93 million is going to state police and state-run operations, the big winners being the Texas Department of Public Safety and the governor's Department of Emergency Management – with no guarantees that the additional 50-plus troopers, dozens of auto-theft and narcotics investigators, state surge operations and handful of Texas Rangers will wind up on the border.

Webb County Sheriff Rick Flores said he places the blame squarely at the feet of lawmakers who "played politics" with the governor over the issue.

And lawmakers are unapologetic, saying the money is better spent at the state level. But the final product looks almost nothing like what the sheriffs envisioned when they accompanied Mr. Perry on campaign stops, in TV ads and at news conferences to boost his support in the Democratic border counties.

"Three times more troopers means three times more ticket writers," said frustrated Zapata County Sheriff Sigi Gonzalez, a Democrat who appeared in two campaign ads for Mr. Perry, a Republican. "The DPS can do all they can, but it's not border security."

The rest of the money – about $17 million – will go to grants for local law enforcement agencies for overtime and equipment. The money won't pay for more boots on the ground to man a border that would, in some places, go largely unchecked without sheriff's deputies and their patrols.

"We got screwed. We were at the bottom of the totem pole," said Webb County Sheriff Rick Flores, whose deputies confiscated $2 million in cash headed to a Mexican cartel last week and 1,000 pounds of cocaine headed north the week before. "It's hard to compete against the state or state officials or a state law enforcement agency like DPS when they had retired DPS employees lobbying to get the biggest chunk of the pie."

Aides to Mr. Perry assured that the border would see a majority of the money, whether it's directly controlled by the locals or not. Most of the $63 million earmarked for "surge operations" and overtime under the Texas Department of Emergency Management would be largely for the sheriffs and police to use, not just the portion specifically earmarked for the local agencies, spokesman Robert Black said.

"I would venture to guess that the border region is going to see a lot more than $17 million," he said.

Some of the money will be spent in other regions of the state, he said, to combat crime that comes "as a result of the porous border" – such as drug gangs in big cities or trafficking along the highways.

"But the governor, of all people, is well aware that it's best to stop it at the river," Mr. Black said. "Border security starts at the border."

House and Senate budget writers said Mr. Perry pushed for more money to go to the locals. They acknowledged that the sheriffs had been led to expect a lot more than $17 million – divided who knows how many ways.

But several said they felt better about funneling the money to the DPS and other operations run by the state because they have more control over those dollars – and because state agencies can more easily absorb the loss if the programs aren't funded anew in the next two-year state budget.

"It's an enormous amount of money, and we need to be cautious about how we go forward with it," said Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham. "Let's see what we can accomplish in the next 18 months, and then in the [next] session we may say we need to look more to the locals and tip our hat to them."

For leaders such as Sheriff Flores, the result means working his deputies harder than they are already – risking exhaustion, causing high turnover and leaving no way to "deal with the fact that we don't have enough boots on the ground."

"My people here in Webb County are just tired of working overtime," Sheriff Flores said. "They're exhausted. They've already told me, 'Sheriff, we've done what we could.' ... They've gotten to the point where they're saying the overtime pay is not everything. Money is not everything."

Dividing the money

The sheriffs know, though, that the battle is lost, until at least 2009. So they're turning their attention to how they'll get their hands on some of that $17 million – although many questions still are unanswered on that front as well.

In May, lawmakers created the Border Security Council to advise the governor on how to disburse those funds, along with federal money being pushed for sheriffs at the congressional level. But they did not specify when it would be created, how many people would be on it and what the criteria for grants would be.

The only guideline is that one-third of the council must be from the border region. A Perry spokeswoman said there is no set timeline for creating the council or doling out the funds, which aren't available until September.

Several sheriffs said they'll apply for a spot on the council but haven't heard from the governor's office about it.

"Nada," Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino said. "I've got my pencil sharpened and we're waiting for the phone call. I'll be very interested to see how many members are actually appointed to this council and where they're from, and who they're going to be. That's going to be the real kicker right there."

Relations between sheriff's departments are still healing after a rift last year between some agencies, including Sheriff Trevino's, and the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition formerly headed by Sheriff Gonzalez.

The coalition got millions in state grant money only to withhold part of it from Hidalgo County because leaders, including Sheriff Gonzalez, didn't agree with Sheriff Trevino's approach to border security.

That rift, Sheriff Trevino said, is largely past. But it underscores the political battles likely to arise when it comes time to decide which counties, and which sheriffs, get more funding for their border programs.

As for the remaining $93 million, no one's specified exactly how that will translate into border security either. DPS officials haven't released a plan, and the governor's office has yet to be specific on the emergency management division's ideas beyond funding a central border intelligence center.

DPS officials said this week that the 106 commissioned officers and 14 noncommissioned officers hired with the new money would be "all stationed along the border and in the contiguous counties to the border."

"We really are going to do it," spokeswoman Tela Mange said. "We just, at this point, don't know where exactly and what types of personnel."

Some lawmakers say it makes sense to use the money to fight border-related crime deeper in the state, too.

"We know that I-35 is a major drug corridor. You have [Central American] gangs in Dallas. Border security happens in places other than the border," said Steven Polunsky, a spokesman for Sen. John Carona, the Dallas Republican who carried the governor's homeland security and border security bills.

Lonely patrol

But the need on the front line is apparent, nearly every night. Zapata County sheriff's Deputy Isaias Juarez spends most of his night shifts pulling over vehicles on a lonely 20-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 83, which runs from Laredo to Brownsville less than a mile from the Rio Grande.

In his two years with the department, he has stopped about 50 loads of marijuana from Mexico. And yet on one recent patrol, Deputy Juarez spotted just one unit from the U.S. Border Patrol and no troopers at all for 10 hours on that highway.

"This is how it works," he said, moments after checking out a rundown truck driving erratically. "We just chase cars all day. If we had one trooper helping us, it would be good."

The sheriffs and other local police agencies are careful not to appear ungrateful – particularly since the money is months away from being doled out – and they say they're not trying to suggest that the DPS won't help.

They're thankful that the state is buying a couple of DPS helicopters, and they're glad that Texas Parks and Wildlife will get a few more game wardens to patrol places such as in West Texas and Falcon Lake to the south.

In Zapata County, Sheriff Gonzalez would use the cash for overtime and vehicle maintenance, augmenting the $2.2 million a year his department budgets for personnel. He'll also use the money to keep vehicles in operation so deputies can patrol the rugged riverbanks.

Hidalgo County would try to use it for something like a mobile crime-scene unit, the sheriff said.

"In a way, look. I'm finally glad that they got off their butt up there, and they did something about it," Sheriff Trevino said. "I am very appreciative and grateful that we got what we got. ... Like that old crazy saying, when you got lemons ..." ... 16d08.html