A program in the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office allowed deputies to cash in for years on a nearly unlimited bank of overtime to patrol the politically influential Saddlebrooke community in the southern part of the county.
The overtime was doled out to deputies patrolling a region that has some of the lowest reported crime rates in the county. Despite the low crime rate, the region’s officers consistently banked the most overtime of any area, according to sheriff’s records.
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In the four months leading up to the Nov. 4 general election, patrol was ramped up in the Saddlebrooke area and more than $100,000 was spent in overtime.
Lt. Tamatha Villar, who supervises the region’s deputies, says the open-door overtime program was launched after Saddlebrooke residents spoke up two years ago about a problem with burglaries and vandalism in the sprawling, upscale community of 3,500 homes.
She said that the outbreak of crime was tamped down but the permissive policy for racking up overtime to patrol the Saddlebrooke community continued long after the crime rate had leveled.
“Given our current economic status, the best decision economically was to suspend that detail,” Villar said of the continuing coverage.
The overtime program was canceled Dec. 1, less than a month after Sheriff Chris Vasquez was defeated in his bid for re-election. Chief Deputy Jeff Kirkham approached Villar and told her to shut it down, she said.
Kirkham did not return phone calls for comment on this story.
Sheriff-elect Paul Babeu said the overtime program has served as a political tool for Vasquez since he defeated competitor Bob Ingulli in 2006. The election showed that Vasquez’s popularity with voters lagged in the Saddlebrooke area and the overtime program put more deputies on the street in a region that is chronically understaffed, he said.
Vasquez’s program was considered a success by the community, Villar said. Officers in the Saddlebrooke substation have received thanks from satisfied residents who previously didn’t have the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office on their radar.
However, Babeu said the program was easily manipulated, expensive and one of the top financial problems to solve in a department he will head at the beginning of the year.
“Clearly to have this program run all the way through the election was a mismanagement of resources and of taxpayer money,” he said. “That’s obvious because they ended it on Dec. 1.”
Region 2, which covers the communities of Saddlebrooke, San Manuel, Kearny, Dudleyville and Eagle Crest, has fewer deputies than the three other regions in the county.
It is missing an entire patrol unit of approximately six deputies, Villar said. Before the program was suspended, the bare-bones staffing in the region allowed deputies from all over the county to patrol it by working overtime — which is equal to time-and-a half of their hourly wage. A Pinal County sheriff’s deputy makes between $48,000 and $62,000 annually, according to their Web site.
Vasquez defended his department’s decision to start the “high-intensity” patrol after Saddlebrooke residents were the victims of graffiti that damaged thousands of dollars worth of property.
“(Region 2 deputies) are being more proactive to ensure that crime does not increase over there,” Vasquez said. “We hit harder in the beginning and now we pulled back.”
The sheriff’s records indicate that the overtime hours were mostly spent to fill shifts left empty because of a lack of deputies.
The other three regions spent at least twice as much as Region 2 on “active” overtime that required deputies to stay on for serious law enforcement issues, such as killings, rape and other violent crimes, the documents show.
Vasquez’s region model is designed to cover large areas, which can no longer work for the county because of its booming population, Babeu said. As the region’s deputies are burdened with the requirement of being first responders to all emergencies over a larger area with a smaller staff, Region Two deserves a new format, according to Babeu. Region 2 is vast, covering more than 1,700 square miles. A restructuring could drastically reduce the need for excessive overtime, Babeu said.
“It provided tens of thousands of dollars to deputies at a time when our government has less money and citizens are looking to pay their bills and eke out a living,” he said.