Marfa police will join funding program to operationally support Border Patrol

MARFA — At a Tuesday night meeting of the Marfa City Council, elected officials voted three to one to allow the Marfa Police Department to join Operation Stonegarden, a department of homeland security grant program that enhances “cooperation and coordination among Customs and Border Protection (CBP), United States Border Patrol (USBP), and local, Tribal, territorial, state, and Federal law enforcement agencies,” according to DHS.

Council heard a presentation from Marfa Border Patrol’s Michael Shelton last Thursday and deliberated on whether to allow the city’s police to join the grant. Shelton told council that the city police’s participation would mostly involve officers reporting suspicious or unusual activity that they observe while on patrol.

The funds are available for police departments to hire an entirely new officer position, but council was disinterested in the idea and Chief Estevan Marquez leaned more toward using the funding for other purposes.

Marquez told council that the grant was something his officers “have been asking for. They’ve seen other small towns like ours benefit from this,” he said, citing local cities who also participate. “It would keep our guys out there doing a little extra patrol and they get reimbursed for it.” Shelton said the program reimburses for salary and overtime when officers are on the clock with the grant. It also can cover vehicle mileage, vehicle maintenance and time spent filling out grant paperwork.

Money from the grant can be used to pay Marfa officers for additional overtime hours, so that they could have an increased presence in the area. Officers cannot “work the grant” during their normal work hours, but can pick up shifts during overtime or their off-work hours. The funds can also be used toward equipment purchases that support border patrol, though there are limits on what types of equipment. Finally, funds can be used to purchase vehicles, something city officials did express interest in.

During times the officers are “working the grant,” they still remain under the banner of city employees, meaning if they are injured during grant work, it will be the city’s responsibility to cover costs like worker’s compensation and utilize city-provided insurance. That information was explained by Shelton after questions from Councilmember Buck Johnston, the only council member who ultimately voted against taking the grant.

Johnston’s concerns echoed the hesitation that came about last time the council considered, and ultimately rejected, Operation Stonegarden funds in 2018.

The mayor concluded the Thursday meeting with an endorsement of the program. “I’m in favor of Operation Stonegarden,” Mayor Manny Baeza said. “I think it’ll strengthen our bond between City of Marfa and U.S. Border Patrol. I think we can get better vehicles for our law enforcement, and I don’t see this as being – as far as what’s going on nationally – the city of Marfa is not going to change their policing policies.”

In reality, the city already provides some support to border patrol operations, Marquez added. The grant would reimburse the city for that time, which the mayor estimated could mean about $7,000 shaved off the city’s $19,000 annual police overtime budget.

By Tuesday, council was ready to act with some sense of urgency, because there was funding immediately available in 2020 that could be rolled into the program before year’s end. Around $16,000 from Jeff Davis County Sheriff’s Office was unused and eligible to be reallocated to Marfa police, should the city choose to accept it. In 2021, additional funding opportunities would become available too.

City Attorney Teresa Todd recommended taking the grant, saying she had seen it work well for other agencies in neighboring cities and counties.

Councilmember Irma Salgado moved to accept the funds, and the motion found support from council members Raul Lara and Yoseff Ben-Yehuda. Johnston was the sole “nay” vote, with Councilmember Eddie Pallarez absent from the meeting.

With that, the city of Marfa police joined a three-year grant that renews annually. “You have the option of withdrawing and returning unexpended funds at any time,” Shelton reassured the council last week.