PHOENIX — Arizona lawmakers who hoped to build miles of fencing along the border with Mexico using millions of dollars in private money are pulling the plug nearly five years later after the state received just a fraction of the donations needed.
They plan to instead distribute the money to a sheriff's office along the border.
Republican backers of the 2011 legislation hoped for as much as $50 million in private money for the project, which called for building 15-foot fences at busy border-crossing points, then erecting other fences along miles of the state's 375-mile border that had no federal fences.
Instead, the state received about $265,000.
The effort began during the height of Arizona's battle against illegal immigration, before a backlash that led to state Senate President Russell Pearce's recall from office and curbed the GOP-led Legislature's appetite for measures targeting immigration.
On Monday, lawmakers, sheriff's and state department heads who serve on the Legislature's border security advisory committee will meet to hear spending proposals for the donations.
They've asked sheriffs in Cochise, Pima, Yuma and Santa Cruz counties to present plans for the cash related to border security.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada appreciates the offer but says he won't participate because it's one-time money and there's not enough cash to have an effect.
"I know it's a lot of money," Estrada said. "But when you're talking about a fence, either virtual or wherever, and then obviously if it's a virtual fence we'd have to maintain whatever it is."
Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannells is seeking nearly $220,000 to buy thermal imaging equipment, binoculars, GPS equipment and other gear for his border security and ranch patrol teams. He sent a proposal to the Legislature seeking the funds last month.
His letter praised the efforts of the U.S. Border Patrol to add technology and fencing to the border but said when migrants or smugglers do make it across, law enforcement agencies need to be equipped to respond.
"The leadership of this agency is very enthusiastic about the border fence program and believes that the additional equipment requested will only enhance the existing fence, virtual and physical, the United States Border Patrol has established," Dannels wrote.
The Pima County Sheriff's Department says it didn't make a proposal and won't attend the meeting. Yuma County sheriff's officials couldn't immediately be reached to see if they applied.
State Sen. Steve Smith, who championed the 2011 bill, said the donations can be used only for border security measures.
"It's going to be probably a two-pronged approach — what can we do immediately with this amount of money and what would be a long-term solution with the money," Smith said Friday. "But I'm going to guess a lot of it will be virtual."
Estimates for the first mile of fencing approached $2.8 million.
The state launched a website in 2011 to collect money for the fence project, and Smith championed the effort. In December of that year, the state had more than $250,000, but donations dried up.
Smith, a Republican from the community of Maricopa, about 40 miles south of Phoenix, said he's not discouraged by the lack of fundraising.
"We just went on the circuit for a while and told people what we were doing — we raised a quarter-million right out of the chute," Smith said. "My notion was and always is, let's start a pilot project and hopefully shame the federal government into doing their job."