ZAPATA, Texas (Border Report) — The rural South Texas border county of Zapata isn’t receiving state funds from Operation Lone Star in Fiscal Year 2024, and the county judge tells Border Report it sorely needs all the money it can get.
Zapata County received nearly $4 million in state funds in Fiscal Year 2023 from the Operation Lone Star Grant (OLS) Program, which funds local governments to assist with the state’s border security initiative Operation Lone Star.
But Zapata County didn’t use enough of the funds this fiscal year, which ends Saturday. And they don’t qualify for more funds this upcoming fiscal year, Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell said Thursday.
“Because of the fact that we had not spent the desired percentage, or I guess the minimum percentage of 25% of the initial funds that were granted to the county, we were not going to be approved for additional funding,” Rathmell said.
But he said “we didn’t totally lose out,” because Gov. Greg Abbott’s office has approved allowing Zapata County to use the remaining $2.5 million in unspent funds to pay law enforcement overtime and other equipment expenses next fiscal year. But they won’t get additional funds through the OLS Grant Program, he said.
He said the county was at fault for the delay in spending all of the money, as they had promised they would in the grant application. He said disagreements among county departments over administrative use of the funds for court case management contributed to the delay. A lot of that had to do with the prosecuting of undocumented migrants who illegally cross the border from Mexico and are charged with criminal trespass, he said.
Rathmell said there were about 20 cases that were processed under criminal trespass through county court this past fiscal year. That’s a new charge that was assessed to some migrants that had not before been used but is part of the state’s efforts to deter illegal immigration on the Texas-Mexico border.
“I had a lot of pushback from the treasurer’s office mainly and the county auditor, and frankly it took us six months of back and forth till we could finally get moving on it. And that contributed to a lot of the headaches and not being able to use the available funds that were granted to us. So that’s kind of in a nutshell,” Rathmell said Thursday.
The state began Operation Lone Star in March 2021 and kicked it off with $100 million in grant funding available to local governments. Since then, the state has funded $10 billion on border security including building segments of its own state-funded border wall throughout South Texas.
With the grant, the Zapata County Sheriff’s Department was able to purchase new patrol vehicles, bullet-proof vests and other tech equipment, he said.
Zapata County Sheriff Raymundo Del Bosque has 30 deputies on his force — the only in the county since there are no incorporated towns or police departments within the county’s entire 1,058 square miles.
On Monday, Del Bosque and the county received a check for $375,000 in federal funds to help with border security as part of the Department of Homeland Security’s Operation Stonegarden grant program.
“It’s going to be crucial for us at this point in time because everything is changing on the border and it’s going to help us with overtime, equipment and resources so we can provide better border security,” Del Bosque said.
Aside from the initial $3.9 million grant, the county also received a $1 million grant from a separate Operation Lone Star grant specific for “border-adjacent counties.”
Abbott announced in July 2022 that a total of $14 million in grants were available for Texas counties on the border with Mexico.
In Zapata County Commissioners’ Court on Monday, Rathmell asked if they had received approval for the adjacent counties grant for another $1 million.
But as of Thursday, they have not, he said.
In announcing the adjacent-counties program, Abbott said it is to support “abandoned border communities.”
“The State of Texas will support them and help them respond to the disaster that President Biden has caused on the border,” Abbott said. “Operation Lone Star grant funding has played an integral role in our mission to keep Texans safe and support local communities. I encourage local governments to apply for these funds as we work together to prevent illegal immigration and the smuggling of people, illegal weapons, and deadly drugs like fentanyl from Mexico into Texas.”
During Monday’s meeting, commissioners voted to require the repayment of $104,000 in delinquent taxes to Zapata County that a previous tax assessor/collector had erased from the books. About $17,000 of those deleted taxes are owed by Del Bosque.
Commissioners also voted to approve a $16 million county budget for Fiscal Year 2024.
Rathmell said this rural ranching county of 15,000, which is located east of Laredo and about a two-hour drive west of McAllen, needs every penny it can get to fund county employees, for roads and to provide other resources, like ambulances and EMT equipment.
The OLS grants helped to supplement overtime pay for law enforcement and provided equipment they didn’t have to spend county funds on. Now, as to the EMT and other wants, he said: “We may have to wait until next year.”
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at SSanchez@BorderReport.com.