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County leaders debate cost of accepting federal grant money

By Matthew Smith, Good Morning El Paso Weekend Anchor / Reporter
Published On: Dec 23 2013 02:47:30 PM CST
Updated On: Jan 16 2014 08:14:32 PM CST
EL PASO, Texas -

Five months ago, county leaders unanimously agreed to apply for a federal grant to hire school resource officers in El Paso County.

In five months, a lot has changed. El Paso County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Eddie Campa broke down the numbers for county commissioners on Monday. Recently, the Sheriff’s Office was chosen for the grant, but in order to accept it, the sheriff will need approval from the county -- it became clear immediately that the commissioners were no longer 100 percent on board.

“The reality for us,” said County Judge Veronica Escobar, “(is) this is not free money.”

Escobar evoked the county’s recent battle with the Council of Judges. She pointed to the recent decision by the council to raise the attorney fees linked to indigent defenses in El Paso County. At this point, she said they don’t have a funding source identified for the estimated $1.2 million in rising costs. She also pointed to the difficulties to pass/fund this upcoming year’s budget. Escobar admitted it’s difficult to attain money from the federal government during a time of sequestration but added that the cost would be too much for the county to take on.

The tide seemed to turn quickly, with Commissioner Vince Perez expanding on some of the same points. Perez, who was very vocal about the costs of the recent Council of Judges decision, pointed to the recent costs linked to the Sheriff’s Office. He continued the conversation, stating that it would help his district but that the cost was too high.

The federal grant, along with money to be matched by the county, would pay for school resource officers for three years. The sticking point seemed to be a requirement for the officers to remain employed a fourth year.

In order for the county to receive $1.25 million for 10 school resource officers for Clint, San Eli and Canutillo Independent School Districts, the county would need to chip in $698,000. According to a presentation, the school boards have committed to cover most of that cost, leaving $108,000 for the county to fund. The fourth year of those officers' employment, however, wouldn’t be funded. The source of the funding of those officers would be up in the air.

Campa told commissioners the officers could be shifted to other duties within the Sheriff’s Office, pointing out that four years from now, they would likely need more deputies on the street. According to Campa, the grant requires the officers would remain on staff for more than the three funded years, but didn’t require that they remain on payroll for that specific job.

“We’re short (on deputies) to begin with, but four years from now, with our growth, 10 more officers makes sense,” said Campa.

Campa even said he was pleading with them to accept the grant money. When it appeared that wouldn’t happen, Commissioner Sergio Lewis brought up the possibility of agreeing to the grant money at a lesser amount. According to an assistant attorney, they could accept less money or officers, but it would affect the amount of money they would receive, too.

Commissioners asked their staff to calculate other alternatives. After skipping a vote, commissioners went back and discussed possibilities.  They directed Campa to ask for an extension on the federal grant.  It appears they'll only approve the grant if the school districts agree to pick up the tab.

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