Funding for boat to fight drug smuggling wins supervisors' approval

mfountain@thetribunenews.comApril 22, 2014 

A large panga boat along with 4,440 pounds of marijuana were found on the beach at Estero Bluffs State Park, north of Cayucos and west of Highway 1, on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014.

DAVID MIDDLECAMP — dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors gave the Sheriff’s Office the go-ahead Tuesday to spend nearly a half-million dollars in federal grants for a boat to combat international drug smugglers — but not without some skeptical questioning first.

The Sheriff’s Office had asked the county to allow it to accept $493,013 from a federal grant, the bulk of which — $342,813 — will go toward a 27-foot Defender Class response boat so the department can tow drug-smuggling panga boats from the coastline once they’ve beached. The department currently relies on other agencies and private vessels to carry out the work.

The board unanimously granted the funding, but first questioned whether the boat would end up costing the county money to maintain and whether the private sector could conduct the towing more efficiently.

“I’m frankly dubious about our ability to patrol offshore,” Supervisor Bruce Gibson said.

Supervisor Adam Hill asked how the boat’s law enforcement value would be assessed.

“I’m not saying it’s the case here, but the argument against things like these is that when law enforcement money becomes available, we want to buy a lot of cool stuff,” Hill said. “How will we judge the success?”

Sheriff Ian Parkinson responded to Gibson by saying that this type of grant has been used in the past to cover overtime and miscellaneous costs, and that ongoing costs of the boat — estimated at roughly $800 per year — will be absorbed in the sheriff’s annual budget.

“This is an asset, this is not the solution,” Parkinson said.

Parkinson responded to Hill by saying that an indication of the boat’s value would be if the number of local panga landings decrease, as they have in Southern California counties since similar efforts began there in the last year.

Gibson suggested requiring the Sheriff’s Office to conduct a baseline report about the activities and cost of the department’s Marine Enforcement Unit, with a follow-up in two years to see if the boat makes a difference.

Finding little support from colleagues, he settled on Parkinson’s offer to make a presentation to the board at a future date.

Parkinson said in his initial presentation that the boat will give the department the capability to patrol the coastline, though that capability will be used sparingly due to resources. 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 said.

“I don’t want to leave the impression that we’re going to be patrolling the coastline every day,” he said “It depends on when we see the need. We’ve done a pretty good job in identifying the kinds of (weather) conditions they like to use.”

The remainder of the grant will be used for equipment such as a thermal-imaging camera, mobile license plate readers, sensor kits and night vision goggles.

Twelve panga boat landings have been found in the county between May 2012 and February 2014, with the most recent occurring Feb. 23. Authorities have have made 62 arrests from those incidents, and 35 of those people are currently serving their sentences at County Jail.

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