Boating enforcement cuts may lower patrols - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Boating enforcement cuts may lower patrols

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Posted: Saturday, April 11, 2009 10:10 pm | Updated: 2:34 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

The 28 sheriff's deputies reporting to Capt. Joe Rodriquez patrol Maricopa County's waterways, nabbing drunken boaters and responding to emergencies from Lake Pleasant to Bartlett Reservoir to Saguaro Lake, a popular recreation spot east of Phoenix.

The Lake Patrol Division gets a boost in those efforts from a state fund that uses money from a watercraft license tax to promote law enforcement and safety in areas popular with boaters. It helps cover salaries, equipment and training for agencies in eight counties.

But cuts made as state lawmakers closed a budget deficit for this fiscal year could mean cutbacks for agencies relying on the money.

The Legislature swept $500,000, or about 25 percent, from the Law Enforcement and Boating Safety Fund. And Arizona State Parks, which administers the fund, has frozen another $500,000 to keep open the possibility of using that money to cover cuts the Legislature could make to the agency's fiscal 2010 budget.

Law enforcement agencies will see the effects when grants are distributed in July.

"We could lose four positions," Rodriquez said. "I prefer to keep those people on the water as much as possible - that's our concern in the summer."

Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, said the fund is a lifeline in Mohave County, where the sheriff's office patrols popular boating areas along the Colorado River. That county received $729,000 in fiscal 2008.

Gould objected to the idea of Arizona State Parks using money from the fund for other purposes.

"It's meant for boating safety," he said in a telephone interview. "It's not for State Parks."

However, in making cuts for fiscal 2009 the Legislature included a clause allowing agencies to use money from funds they control for other purposes as long as the Joint Legislative Joint Budget Committee approves.

Jay Ream, assistant director for Arizona State Parks, said the agency's board had few options after the legislative sweeps, especially after closing three parks and suspending and canceling all other grants.

"Embargoing this money is not something the board does lightly," Ream said in a telephone interview. "Except the Legislature decided to divert some of it, so State Parks decided to divert some of it as well."

Ream said the agency won't decide whether to use the money until it sees the budget for next year.

Sen. Linda Gray, R-Phoenix, said boating safety is a concern for lawmakers working on the 2010 budget, but she added that there are many worthwhile programs facing cuts.

"We're not done with it yet. There's a lot of moving parts," she said in a telephone interview. "Next year's budget woes are worse than this year."

Rep. Russell L. Jones, R-Yuma, said lawmakers are trying to assess law enforcement needs as they decide where to make reductions for fiscal 2010.

"I'm going to advocate that we do not deplete these funds," Jones said in a telephone interview. "For me, it is somewhat of a priority. I'm from a district that has a lot of waterways."

Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies relying on the grants are preparing to do without at least some of the money.

Lt. Darren Simmons, a boating supervisor with the Yuma County Sheriff's Office, which received $237,000 from the fund in fiscal 2008, said his department is considering shifting some officers' assignments to keep up enforcement on the water.

"We don't have the money," he said in a telephone interview. "We're looking to have to pull positions off the road."

Lt. Alan Nelson, who supervises the Marine Enforcement Division of the La Paz County Sheriff's Office, said at a recent Arizona State Parks Board meeting that cutting the fund will hurt public safety.

"When you reduce law enforcement patrols, people die," he told board members.

In a telephone interview, Nelson said his agency is still trying to figure out how it will grapple with cuts. The county received $369,000 from the fund in fiscal 2008.

"We're spread far enough as it is," he said. "We will continue our programs. How exactly we're going to do that we don't know."

Speaking outside the sheriff's substation at Saguaro Lake, Rodriquez said he doesn't know how the cutbacks will affect Maricopa County, which received $363,000 from the fund in fiscal 2008. He hopes the county can reduce elsewhere to maintain patrols on waterways.

"I know it's coming - it's eventual - but I don't want it to be on the water," Rodriquez said.

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