$6.14M awarded to the Valley for Operation Stonegarden 2016
By Kristian Hernandez
The Department of Homeland Security awarded Texas more than $20 million through Operation Stonegarden to help local law enforcement agencies pay for equipment, fuel costs and overtime pay in an effort to help secure the border.
Hidalgo County received the most funding in the Rio Grande Valley with $3.5 million, followed by Starr with $1.5 million, Cameron with $1 million and Willacy with $140,000. The grant money in Hidalgo County is distributed among four county precincts and 12 city police departments, but the sheriff’s office usually keeps the biggest cut because of its size and jurisdiction.
“No one knows the community better than the elected sheriff and the elected constables because we are the only law enforcement that answers to the people,” said Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra. “These grants help us and help our mission in trying to protect the community.”
Local law enforcement officials have not met to divvy up the 2016 grant funding, which was announced Thursday, but the money used must involve joint operations or missions with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents, Guerra said. At least 50 percent of the funds received by each individual law enforcement agency must be allocated for overtime pay, he added.
“We have to supplement the mission of CBP, and they can actually dictate operations to us and sometimes they have, but most of the time they allow us to work our operations independently and jointly, but it has to have a CBP mission function when we work these operations,” Guerra said.
Some changes compared to other years’ grant funding in Hidalgo County include the City of McAllen being approved to receive part of the money and undercover deputy investigators working narcotics operations are also included. Before, only deputies in marked units were covered.
Guerra said Operation Stonegarden will not commence until about August 2017, and they are just getting ready to start last year’s operation, where the county was awarded $3.3 million.
Hidalgo County has been awarded $20,047,969 since 2009. But most counties in South Texas have had their grant money reduced since 2014, which could be linked to misuse of funds by local law enforcement. Last year’s grant total allocated for Starr County was reduced by more than $800,000 compared to fiscal year 2014 when it received more than $2 million.
It is unclear if the reduction of money allocated to the county came as a result of allegations of misappropriations of funds, but last year former Rio Grande City Police Chief Byron “Dutch” Piper admitted to FBI investigators he had stolen more than $44,000 in overtime pay paid by the program between 2009 and 2014.
Guerra said the counties that receive the funds are responsible for the way they are being used, and there are multiple systems of oversight in place to prevent misuse of funds, including county auditors who review the forms that must be filled out and approved by officials.
U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville is one of the congressmen who help allocate these funds to South Texas every year and said in a news release Thursday the grant has helped keep the border communities safe over the years.
“Texas cities on the U.S.-Mexico border are among the safest in the nation, but we must continue to address the crime, cartel violence and trafficking plaguing Matamoros, Reynosa and the state of Tamaulipas,” Vela said. “This targeted federal support will ensure that local communities have the resources needed to improve security along the Rio Grande and in South Texas.”