FLORENCE — Sheriff Paul Babeu and approximately 75 of his employees attended the Pinal County Board of Supervisors meeting Wednesday to urge the board to keep its jail contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, warning the board that possibly hundreds of jobs were at stake.
Pinal County has a contract with the federal agency to house some of ICE’s detainees at the Pinal County jail. Results of an audit, initiated by County Manager Fritz Behring, released earlier this year showed the county was losing approximately $2.5 million per year on the deal.
The board’s agenda item Wednesday regarded approval or disapproval for Behring to terminate the contract, which originally was signed in August 2006.
The supervisors in a 4-1 vote, with Republican Cheryl Chase against, decided to make one more attempt at renegotiating the contract with ICE, using all resources available — specifically the help of U.S. Reps. Paul Gosar, Ann Kirkpatrick and Ron Barber. The motion also allowed Babeu to be part of the discussions, with Behring as the main point of contact on all communications.
The item was continued until the board’s May 29 meeting to allow all parties time to reach out to ICE for a last effort on renegotiating the contract that is costing Pinal County about $50,000 a week.
Babeu asked the board to vote against terminating the contract because he said it would immediately put 200 people, mostly detention officers at the jail, out of work. Numerous Pinal County Sheriff’s Office employees went to the lectern Wednesday to ask the same thing because they said they’re fearful of losing their jobs.
PCSO Deputy Scott Bagwell said the officers in the room represented the public’s wishes and that it wasn’t wise for the board to go against those.
“Look around you. In law enforcement, we call this a clue,” he said. “As much as the future of these fine people rests in your hands, I just want you to know that the future of you guys sitting up there as county leaders (is dependent on them).”
Bagwell was one of numerous PCSO employees — detention officers and deputies alike — who spoke against terminating the contract.
“I’m asking you to vote this down,” Babeu said. “Don’t delay it; vote this down. Find a solution. I’m here to save these jobs and to maintain a good operation that we have.”
District 1 Supervisor Pete Rios of Dudleyville, the board’s lone Democrat, said the county has been struggling with the contract for years and said attempts to communicate with ICE have gone nowhere.
“We’ve tried to set up meetings with ICE to renegotiate this contract,” he said. “I want to save these jobs as well. The fact of the matter is, we’ve had no response from them … it doesn’t mean we can’t continue trying, but in the meantime, we are bleeding; we are losing money under this contract.”
Rios said as a supervisor, he has to be mindful not only of job retention but balancing the county budget and not raising property taxes on Pinal residents.
District 5 Supervisor Todd House of Apache Junction told Babeu not to be surprised about the fact the board had already discussed the ICE contract, as the results of the audit of the contract were released in February.
“I’m not going to stand up here and be insulted by you when you knew full well what was going on,” he said to Babeu. “We run the county. The sheriff does not run the county.”
Vice Chairman Anthony Smith, a Maricopa Republican, said he was astonished Babeu never mentioned the ICE contract and how much money it was costing the county when he came before the board last month and asked for a $12 million increase in the Sheriff’s Office budget.
Smith told Babeu he had no reason to be upset about not being included in discussions on the ICE contract because he hadn’t tried to contact Behring to ask if he could be involved in negotiations.
Babeu criticized the board for discussing the matter in executive session and not including him.
“I was begging you to please work with us and the county manager toward a solution,” Smith said. “In the two-week time period (since the last board meeting), you haven’t done that.”
Babeu said he’d spoken with Sen. John McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake about the ICE contract, but Smith said Behring must be included in all conversations. Board Chairman Steve Miller of Casa Grande said Babeu should have informed the board about his discussions with the senators, while Babeu blamed Behring for not previously reaching out to the senators or other members of Arizona’s congressional delegation.
Smith said it’s not wise to have “more than one point of contact” during negotiations and said Behring should be that contact.
“For you to berate the board and chastise us for those actions is a bit irresponsible on your part,” Smith said to Babeu.
Chase, who represents District 2 in San Tan Valley and worked for Babeu at the Sheriff’s Office before being elected supervisor, offered staunch support for Babeu and PCSO employees.
“I want to tell you I thank you and appreciate all of you who have served the law enforcement community,” she told the PCSO detention officers. “You risk your lives. This is Detention Officer Appreciation Week, and I don’t think you’re feeling very appreciated at this time.”
Chase said the board has very tough decisions ahead but said she thinks there are solutions to the problem other than terminating the ICE contract.
PCSO Chief Deputy Steve Henry said he has 20 years of experience dealing with the federal government and said negotiations must be approached in a diplomatic manner because the federal government doesn’t respond well to strong-arm tactics.
“They don’t do well when someone comes to the table with a big stick because their stick is much bigger, and it always will be,” he said.
Behring said in an interview in February it wasn’t realistic for the county to recoup money it’s already lost on the contract. He said the county will seek a deal where the per diem rate for each ICE detainee covers the county’s operating costs. The main objective, he said, is to make sure the county doesn’t lose any additional money moving forward.
House said he understands the detention officers have tough jobs, provide a valuable service and must provide for their families. But he said the county is comprised of much more than the 200 officers at the jail.
“What you do have to understand is we have almost 400,000 people in Pinal County … we need to make sure we represent all the people of Pinal County,” he said.
Miller said although he isn’t confident ICE will agree to renegotiate the contract, he’s willing to give it one more try before resorting to other measures.
“No one wants this resolved more than me,” he said.