August 1, 2014
By KAREN VELIE and DANIEL BLACKBURN
Sheriff Ian Parkinson told San Luis Obispo County Supervisors in April that he needed an extra half million dollars to buy and operate a 27-foot Defender Class response boat to tow drug smuggling boats, known as pangas, an expense he said would save the county money.
Parkinson noted in his request the nearly $10,000 cost of towing one panga boat as one of the reasons the county would benefit financially by purchasing its own boat for ocean towing. Supervisors approved his request for the $493,013 budget increase and permission to acquire federal funding to match the budget increase.
But officials from both the U.S. Coast Guard and Homeland Security said they have never charged the county for bringing in any suspected drug smuggling boat or for assisting or leading in criminal investigations.
“We have never charged for towing a panga boat,” said Lori Haley, public relations spokeswoman at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an arm of Homeland Security.
And Paul Amaral the operator of Vessel Assist Ventura, a salvage company that tows vessels for the Department of Homeland Security in Ventura and Santa Barbara, says the numbers Parkinson used just don’t add up.
“The sheriff’s request being reviewed here is somewhat misleading in its information and I think the intended use of that $343,000 boat is impractical in real world application,” Amaral told the board at the April meeting. “I feel this proposal is a misuse of taxpayer funds.”
The rest of the $493,013 budget increase would go to buy license-plate readers, night-vision goggles and a thermal-imaging camera to detect pangas at sea, the Sheriff’s Department said.
Sheriff’s Spokesperson Tony Cipolla has made several statements addressing “cost savings” the county would gain by buying a vessel to tow panga boats.
However, since the first panga boat was spotted beached on the San Luis Obispo County coastline, federal agencies have provided aquatic towing at no charge to the county.
Still, the county would save money by spending almost half a million dollars to purchase, outfit and staff the patrol boat this year, Cipolla said.
“Some cost savings will be achieved by reducing the amount of overtime our personnel will incur safeguarding the panga boats while they wait for it to be towed,” Cipolla said. “Sometimes this is done by the Coast Guard, other times it’s contracted out to private vessels sent by Homeland Security from Ventura.”
The time it takes for a tow vessel to reach pangas varies depending on the agency. If the Coast Guard is assisting the sheriff, which can only occur in certain situations, officers leave Morro Bay within 30 minutes of receiving a request. In other cases, where Homeland Security is the lead agency, a boat is dispatched from the Ventura area and takes about three hours to arrive.
Even so, local Homeland Security agents usually wait with the boat, Amaral said.
The Sheriff’s Department did not say whether deputies would have to stay with abandoned drug boats using the new department tow boat.
Parkinson also said the boat could be used to patrol the coastline in the future, though he does not have the staff to man the boat for regular patrols at this time.
“My job is to protect the citizens of the county and we do not have a boat to respond,” Parkinson told the board. “When these boats hit the beaches of San Luis Obispo County, they become our problem, specifically my problem.”
Parkinson told Supervisor Frank Mecham that the Coast Guard detachment at Morro Bay was focused on water safety.
“The primary mission of the U.S. Coast Guard station in Morro Bay is search and rescue, and local authorities have had little to no ability to conduct interdiction operations,” Parkinson responded.
But U.S. Coast Guard spokesperson Adam Stanton said his agency’s mission combines coastal security, drug interdiction, search and rescue, defense readiness first line defense, migrant interdiction, ICE operations and general law enforcement.
Amaral told supervisors that he questioned the cost effectiveness and safety of Parkinson’s proposed purchase, as well as the accuracy of Parkinson’s presentation.
Parkinson responded at the time by claiming his agency had seized the majority of the 12 boats that had beached in San Luis Obispo County before April 22. He said Amaral was misinformed.
Amaral said the county had handled the investigations and retained evidence for only four or five of the 12 panga boats that had landed on the San Luis Obispo County Coast, a statement confirmed independently by SLO County Sheriff Chief Deputy Rob Reid.
“Since May 2012, the sheriff’s office has been involved in 14 incidents with ‘panga’ boats,” Reid wrote in July in response to a CalCoastNews public records request. “Of those, the sheriff’s office conducted the investigation and retained the evidence involved in five incidents. The remaining incidents were handled by federal agencies which took control of the evidence involved.”
In several of the six cases handled by homeland security, sheriff deputies first drove the boats to Morro Bay where they were met by a towing company that transported the boats to a storage facility in the Dana Point area for Homeland Security.
In those five or six cases the county handled, either the U.S. Coast Guard towed the panga boat to Morro Bay for the sheriff at no cost, or local law enforcement officers have pushed boats back into the ocean and then driven the pangas to Morro Bay, or the boat was collected off the beach and transported by land to a sheriff storage area.
Supervisor chair Bruce Gibson voiced concerns about future costs to the county and asked Parkinson if private salvage operators couldn’t remove the boats more skillfully and at less cost than the sheriff’s department.
Parkinson rejected that suggestion, saying that in the past Homeland Security has had to pay “close to $10,000” for a tow. In addition, he noted the cost of about $2,000 the county paid a local tow company to transport a panga by land from Morro Bay to the sheriff’s department, a cost that the purchase of a sheriff patrol boat will not affect.
Parkinson said that the cost to maintain the boat would be about $800 a year. However, other local law enforcement agency representatives have told CalCoastNews that the average annual maintenance cost for a patrol boat is about $4,000.
Gibson said he would approve Parkinson’s request based on the sheriff’s statements, but added that he wanted more oversight. He requested the board require information about the marine enforcement unit’s successes and expenses for the next budget cycle.
Amaral questioned why supervisors did not ask Parkinson to document his statements.
“The board of supervisors already had their minds made up,” Amaral said. “It is really frustrating that an elected official would bend the truth to get his way. If they had just taken the time to research the information, but no they trusted him blindly.”
Panga boats have become a popular vehicle for smugglers to bring drugs and people from Mexico to California’s beaches.
According to arrest statistics reported 2011-2013 by ICE, the number of maritime smuggling events spiked, with most of the panga seizures occurring in Southern California. The majority of the boats moved people, though some were used to transport marijuana and methamphetamine.
The numbers of panga boats retrieved is now declining. From Oct. 2013 through March, 85 boats were seized along California’s coastline. A year earlier, during the same period, there were 96, according to ICE statistics.
In May 2012, the first panga boat was discovered beached in SLO County, there were four beached that year. In 2013, law enforcement seized six pangas.
To date, in 2014, four panga boats have been discovered beached in SLO County, two since Parkinson requested the patrol boat for towing pangas. In one case, the Coast Guard towed the panga for the county at no cost. A group of men pushed the other boat back into the water so that Fish and Game wardens could drive it to Morro Bay for the sheriff’s department.
And while Reid says the county has only taken custody of five of the 14 pangas that have beached in SLO County, his list does not include the last two pangas the county seized.
Sheriff Parkinson declined to discuss the contradicting statements and said he would decide what he would do after CalCoastNews published this story.
“We will wait to review the story before determining our course of action,” Parkinson said.
Watch the SLO Board of Supervisors meeting here, then click on April 22, and go to Item 28.
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