Friday, July 20, 2012

A Desert Mirage: 1 year later, no progress on state border fence

Arizona Capitol Times
July 19, 2012
by Jeremy Duda

A year after Arizona began a nationally publicized effort to build its own border fence through private contributions, not a single fencepost has gone up. And there are several barriers standing in the way of the project.

Fundraising for the project, spearheaded by Sen. Steve Smith, has almost completely dried up. The $273,000 raised by Build America’s Fence is probably not enough to erect even a mile of fencing.
And a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm Smith said the group hired to raise money has not started collecting funds. The federal nonprofit status the group needs for its nationwide fundraising campaign has been pending for a year.

Furthermore, the committee hasn’t yet obtained the materials it needs to build any fencing. It hasn’t yet identified the land where the fencing will be built. And an inmate labor agreement Smith hopes to reach with the Arizona Department of Corrections is still in its infancy, at best.

Smith, R-Maricopa, said he’d hoped to have something to announce by July 20, the anniversary of the launch of and the effective date of the legislation creating the state- sanctioned effort. But things have taken longer than he’d hoped.

“If it were up to me, it would’ve been done on July 21 of last year,” Smith said. “It is a massive undertaking.”

But while no one expects Smith or the Joint Border Security Advisory Task Force, which oversees the project, to cover every unfenced area of Arizona’s 376-mile border with Mexico, Smith said he hopes to get something up soon. After a year of hammering out the details, Smith said he’s “very close” to starting work on part of the fence, which he hopes will be a one-mile section.

There are still a lot of details to work out before anything can be done. Smith said he’s in talks with two fencing companies after the first firm he dealt with, Betafence, had pledged to contribute materials. A change in management in Betafence put those talks on hold, Smith said.

Smith also acknowledged that the $273,000 that has been contributed to the Border Security Trust Fund may not even be enough for the first mile of fencing he wants to construct.

“My goal is to get the first mile in. Obviously, all this stuff costs more than ($273,000). The money we have ordinarily wouldn’t cover it, but we’re going to make those dollars stretch,” the freshman lawmaker said of his hope to use donated materials and cheap labor to build it.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2007 that a mile of double-steel fencing would cost about $1.5 million. A 2009 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated the cost at $2.8 million per mile.

House Minority Leader Chad Campbell said this is exactly what he predicted last year when the border fence effort began. Campbell, a Phoenix Democrat, called the project a “political pyramid scheme.”

“I predicted this when it went through appropriations in 2011, that this would be a bill that would achieve absolutely nothing, would drain money away from people’s personal finances, and would accomplish absolutely zero in terms of addressing anything related to border security,” Campbell said. “This whole thing is an absolute fiasco and it’s been a joke since Day One.”

When the border fence project began in the summer of 2011, it got a lot of national media attention and the checks poured in immediately.

In August, the fund raised $213,000.

But it didn’t take long for the monthly fundraising number to drop from the hundreds of thousands to the thousands to the hundreds. In June of this year, the fund raised just $579. The month before, it raised nothing.

The Joint Border Security Advisory Task Force has its skeptics. Rep. Russ Jones, a Yuma Republican who co-chairs the committee, has long said that building a full fence would be nearly impossible.
But that doesn’t mean nothing will ever be built.

“I don’t think with the money that’s raised that it’s going to be a large area,” Jones said. “It may be more symbolic than anything. But it will be something.”

Even if only a mile or less of fencing goes up, Jones said it still could help U.S. Customs and Border Patrol with interdiction efforts.

And if something is built, Jones said it could help encourage more contributions to the fund.

Committee member Bas Aja, the head of the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, said even a mile of fence would be welcome to border-area ranchers who live in fear.

“Those people down there are desperate. If they go down there and they can demonstrate that they can do something that will provide them additional security, I think people will accept it,” Aja said.
“They’re not going to get all of (the border) covered, but I think their intent is to try to demonstrate that there is a way to increase security, and they might be able to do that with some examples.”

Money may be hard to come by, but Aja said Smith won’t have any trouble finding ranchers and other landowners along the border who are willing to let the committee build on their land.

Smith said fundraising dries up when there’s no media attention. And media attention has been sparse. But that could change, he said, if he can get that first length of fencing up.

Build America’s Fence has hired a Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm, and Smith said the firm believes building the first mile is the key to raising more money. The firm hasn’t been paid yet, Smith said, and will receive a portion of the funds it raises for the fence. Smith said he could not recall the name of the public relations firm.

“They say as soon as you can get construction going and of course get the first mile … or whatever up, they will then take that and deliver that quite literally across the country. But they’re asking for a solid, mother-of-all press releases,” he said. “They seem to think that once we get something in the ground they can certainly try to raise a whole heck of a lot more.”

Aja has a more grim prediction for what will cause the next spike in fundraising.

“But we will have another American citizen killed on the border, and when that happens they’ll see their fundraising increase again,” Aja said, evoking memories of Rob Krentz, the rancher whose murder by suspected Mexican drug cartels provided much of the momentum in favor of SB1070 in 2010.

Build America’s Fence will need more than actual physical barriers to raise money though. It needs nonprofit certification from the IRS, which has been pending for about a year. Arizona public relations consultant Jason Rose, who has worked with Smith on the border fence issue, said Build America’s Fence can’t conduct a substantial, nationwide direct mail campaign until it gets federal certification.

Smith is trying to negotiate good prices for fencing materials, which he said may be “green technology,” though he wouldn’t elaborate on what he meant. He also would not disclose the names of fencing companies he said he is talking with.

If anything actually goes up, Campbell said he expects it to be nothing more than a mile of chain-link fence.

“They’re using some technical term, but it’s a chain fence. You and I could probably cut it down in five minutes,” he said.

One way Smith had long hoped to save money on the fence was by using inmate labor from the Arizona Department of Corrections. But the company that builds the fence, he said, will decide for itself whether it wants to use inmate labor.

Once Smith has an agreement with a fencing company and landowners, he said he’ll go back to the joint committee for approval. His next chance will likely be August, when Jones said the committee will meet for the first time in months.

There’s nothing unusual about the lengthy amount of time it’s taken to start building, Smith said.
“Things take time. Clearly I wish this could go faster. But again, when you have so many parties involved — you’ve got contractors, you’ve got building supply materials, you’ve got installers, you’ve got principals of companies who live in different states and sometimes different companies. You’ve got a lot of people, engineers and everything else. Things like this just don’t happen overnight,” he said.

Smith said he’ll build fencing as long as there’s money to do so. And he’s hoping the money will roll in once a section gets built.

But even if nothing more than a mile ever goes up, Smith said it will still have been worth it.

“To call that a wasted effort, it’s just silly,” he said.

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