AJO, Ariz. — Following an uproar by residents and some members of Congress, the Department of Homeland Security has opened an investigation into whether $15 million in tax dollars to build housing for Border Patrol agents here was improperly spent.
As part of the probe, auditors from Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General traveled to Ajo, a former mining town in southwestern Arizona, and spent the day Thursday interviewing residents, real-estate agents and Customs and Border Protection officials.
The new housing has drawn fire from local real-estate agents and residents, who complained CBP officials grossly overpaid to build the houses at a time when the town already has an abundance of low-cost housing.
The high cost of the housing also incensed some members of Arizona's congressional delegation. Sen. John McCain at a Town Meeting in August called the cost "disgraceful" and said the expense could not be justified, while U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, whose district includes Ajo, asked the Inspector General to look into the "tremendous" costs.
The cost of the housing was first reported by The Arizona Republic last August, showing that CBP paid more than $600,000 each to build 21 modest homes for its personnel in Ajo, a small Arizona desert town near the border where similar-size homes typically cost less than $100,000.
The 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 2013.
Some Border Patrol agents interviewed Thursday say the housing built by the government is much better than most of the housing previously available, though they acknowledge the cost seems excessive.
CBP has said the housing was needed to help accommodate some of the additional agents assigned to the area as part of a massive buildup in manpower in southern Arizona, the main corridor for illegal immigration along the Mexican border and a major drug-smuggling route.
Auditor Shelley Howes on Thursday declined to discuss the investigation with The Republic, saying only that the Office of Inspector General's task is to ensure taxpayer money is spent efficiently, and that when the OIG completes its audit, its report will be made public.
The investigation into the spending on the taxpayer-funded homes comes as Congress is resuming discussion of immigration reform and whether to massively increase spending on border security, including a proposed 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.
CBP has said the costs associated with the 21 houses were driven in part by energy-efficiency measures.
Bronwyn Lance Chester, spokeswoman for Sen. Jeff Flake, said Thursday that Flake and McCain filed an amendment to energy legislation last fall aimed at prohibiting the government from excessive spending on energy-efficiency measures on homes built for federal employees.
Also on Thursday, Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., who wrote last August to acting CBP commissioner Thomas Winkowski, shared a letter that the agency sent him in response.
In that letter, Winkowski concurred that the agency had spent $12.8 million on the housing project, and another $2.2 million to acquire and install the 20 mobile homes. He also said that the agency was prepared to build 25 more houses "if CBP determines they are required and appropriate funding is allocated."
In his Sept. 18, 2013, response, Winkowski said that "CBP is in the process of moving the mobile homes to Presidio, Texas, to replace Federal Emergency Management Agency mobile homes that are in rapidly deteriorating condition."
However, all 20 of the trailer homes remain in Ajo.
The 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." That value has been at issue for local real-estate agents and those trying to rent properties, who have complained that CBP officials misrepresented the market in deciding to build the new units.
"Customs and Border Protection claimed there were no suitable houses in this community," said Linda Sharp, a Realtor and fierce critic of the project. "There are at least 100 quality homes for sale here, and at least 100 rentals."
Local property owner Bob Denune said the houses built by CBP were not needed. He invested his life savings 10 years ago in four rental properties in Ajo. Two of those homes are rented, one by a Border Patrol agent, he said.
"We're afraid that when they go, we'll be stuck," said Denune, who said the Border Patrol homes have harmed the local market.
At the housing development, on the south side of town, several Border Patrol agents who asked not to be named had a different take.
"I lived in another house here in Ajo before this opened," one agent said. "There are very few houses in Ajo worth living in. A lot of them are tiny old mine houses."
Another agent said the rent on his unit was "about $700 a month," and that he didn't have to pay for electricity. The units have solar panels. He said he liked his CBP-built house much more than the place he'd previously rented in Ajo.
Still, "there's no question," he added, "that spending $600,000 to build each individual house is way overpriced."
In addition to Barber, other members of the Arizona congressional delegation said they continue to seek answers, including Democratic Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick and Grijalva.