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PHOENIX — Members of Arizona's congressional delegation are seeking answers from the Department of Homeland Security on why Customs and Border Protection spent about $15 million for housing in the former mining town of Ajo, Ariz.
At a town hall meeting Tuesday in Tucson, in response to questions about the housing, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said, "It's disgraceful." Asked by a constituent how it could be justified, he replied, "It can't. It can't be; and people should be fired."
As The Arizona Republic reported Monday, CBP paid more than $600,000 each to build 21 modest homes for its personnel in Ajo, a small southern Arizona town where similar-size homes typically cost less than $100,000. CBP also paid more than $2 million to buy 20 park-model trailer homes and lease land on which to park them. The housing project opened in February.
CBP has declined to say how many of the homes and trailers are occupied or how much personnel pay to rent them, other than to say they pay what a spokesman called "market rates."
"We're going to ask for some real answers, and follow up on the tremendous costs," said U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., whose district includes Ajo. "If we don't get a response, we'll ask the [Office of the] Inspector General to take a thorough look at that, and I hope some of my colleagues will join me. I'd bet that this situation is not unique."
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., also said he intends to pursue answers about the housing controversy.
"I'd like to know some more details, but, boy, on its face it looks like a lot of wasted money," Flake said. "On its face, how you can justify spending that much money on new housing is beyond me."
Several other delegation members said they, too, already have or will shortly query Homeland Security about the costs. Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., provided a copy of a letter he sent Thursday to Thomas Winkowski, the acting CBP commissioner, asking for an explanation and justification of the costs and value of the homes and trailers.
Barber said he wants "immediate answers from the Department of Homeland Security on how and why these outrageous expenses were approved."
The controversy over the taxpayer-funded homes comes as Congress debates immigration reforms and whether to massively increase spending on border security, including a possible doubling of the Border Patrol to about 40,000 agents. With more than $107 billion spent on securing the border over the last seven years, Homeland Security has regularly faced criticism by government audit and budget agencies for ineffective cost oversight.
Customs and Border Protection officials didn't answer queries from The Republic for a detailed explanation of the cost of the Ajo housing. In a written statement, CBP said that the projects followed federal laws, rules and regulations, and that "CBP chose to build housing because quality, affordable housing was not available in the area."
Even before the housing project was built, similar questions arose. In December 2010, Pima County Administrator C.H. Huckelberry complained in a letter to the project manager that a draft environmental assessment "does not contain any cost comparisons," making it impossible to substantiate the CBP's claim that renovating existing housing would be more expensive than building new housing. Huckelberry could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The assessment, by the General Services Administration, the agency that manages most federal property, briefly discussed alternatives such as building homes on existing federal property in Lukeville, 38 miles away near the Sonoyta border crossing, or near the Border Patrol station in Why, 11 miles from Ajo. But the assessment didn't include detailed cost estimates.
Ajo, a town of about 4,400, sits amid piles of mine tailings about 40 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Since the New Cornelia mine closed in 1983, the town has struggled. A GSA assessment for the housing project said that fewer than 30 percent of the CBP personnel assigned to the area rented in the Ajo market before the construction, and that there wasn't adequate housing for agents and officers, a claim some local realtors and property owners have disputed.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 2007 and 2011 nearly 30 percent of the houses in Ajo were vacant. Both Grijalva and Barber said that they see a value in making it easier for agents and Customs officers to live in the community and in ensuring they have adequate housing. But both also said the government needs to protect against wasteful spending.
Grijalva said that his office had previously suggested CBP look at renovating existing housing stock in Ajo. His letter to DHS also raised questions about spending on private detention facilities for undocumented immigrants; it cited The Republic's story as an example of the need for DHS to release more information that can explain why its expenses are justified.
"This looks like a classic example of spending money without worrying about the cost or consequences," Grijalva said.
Contributing: Dan Nowicki of The Republic