Funds on hold for Starr County grant-based programs due to auditing issues; Operation Stonegarden affected

Funding is currently withheld for multiple grant-based programs in Starr County, including Operation Stonegarden, as of two days ago, Starr County Judge Eloy Vera confirmed Friday.

“We are behind with our audits,” the county judge said, “and when that happens, the funding agencies, of course, put a vendor hold on any advancing of funds that we’re supposed to get reimbursed until our audits are complete.”

Vera said the hold affects programs under the offices of the district attorney, sheriff, and county attorney.

The Domestic Violence Survivors Project, which employs three people, an investigator and a school resource officer are affected by the hold under the county attorney’s office, according to Victor Canales, the county attorney.

Although the district attorney nor the sheriff’s office immediately responded to a request for comment, the judge said the largest program affected was Operation Stonegarden, which pays for officers helping federal agents along the border.

“The sheriff and district attorney were very concerned, because they depend on this grant money to function. I told them, ‘don’t worry about it.’ We’ll go ahead and advance that money to you guys,” Vera said he reassured them.

The judge said the county will be voting Monday to decide whether to continue funding the program by infusing money from the county’s fund balance.

Vera said they expect to be reimbursed for the money they put into the programs later when the annual audit is submitted.

Starr County’s auditor, Javier Perez, and his office are charged with maintaining the books for the county and preparing them for an external auditor. This year, they weren’t able to have the information ready in time, he said. It led the external auditor, who prepares the annual report, to miss the filing deadline.

Operation Stonegarden

Perez said several factors, including the pandemic, delayed their work.

He said staff worked on a rotating basis, with some out two weeks at a time due to the virus. Some worked from the office and others from home.

“When it comes to an audit, you’re talking about looking at a lot of files, a lot of paperwork,” Perez explained. “And so, that’s difficult to be taking home and bringing back (files) to the office. When you’re trying to work on something like that from home, you’re going to be missing something.”

Perez, who was brought into the job two years ago, said they had to play catch up since then. Then the pandemic, a hurricane and a fatal freeze set over Texas. “There’s no way to get caught up when you’re already behind,” Perez said.

The external auditor will be back next week and is expected to have the report ready within the next three weeks.

Vera said he understands the delay. “I’m not trying to defend him in any way,” Vera added. “The audits should be done. There’s no if, ands or buts about it. But, there’s circumstances that happen that were not foreseen.”

The judge remained resolute that the commissioners court will find a solution next week. Though, Vera and Perez both said they don’t know exactly how much is in the fund balance.

At last check, the judge said the commissioner’s court was told they had about $8 million in the fund, Vera estimated.

Staff writer Berenice Garcia contributed to this story.