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2010-01-21

SO's off-site weapons storage catches commishes in headlights

By Judith Pannebaker

When Bandera County Commissioners took up the matter of an “Indemnity and Hold Harmless Agreement” with Phil Becker of Tarpley for law enforcement activities conducted on his property, elected officials got just a mite more than they had bargained for.

Although Becker’s ranch had been used as a training center for almost three decades, neither County Judge Richard Evans nor the rest of the court seemed aware that administrators with the Bandera County Sheriff’s Office had been storing a portion of the department’s arsenal at the locale.

According to Sheriff Weldon Tucker, in addition to the ammo and weapons, law enforcement equipment and vehicles, including the county water rescue boat and a trailer used during drug raids, which had also been stored at Becker’s ranch. The rescue boat, however, is now stashed at the newly completed jail and justice center on Highway 173 North - presumably next to the meth bustin’ trailer.

During a meeting on Thursday, Jan. 14, County Attorney John Payne ceded that Becker’s property had been routinely used for law enforcement training. “About three years ago, when I was in private practice, Mr. Becker asked to draw up a contract with Bandera County,” Payne said. He added that the completed document had been sent it to the county, but no action was taken.

“Speaking as county attorney, I agree Mr. Becker is entitled to an agreement (regarding liability issues) in return for use of the land and the services he’s providing to the county,” Payne said, emphasizing, “Mr. Becker did not ask for monetary compensation."

He also noted that he had drawn up the original agreement to benefit his client. Now, however, as an elected official, he must look out for the interests of Bandera County.

Payne drew commissioners’ attention to a portion of the agreement that indemnified Becker from any damage to the property, tort action or negligence - even if due to Becker’s fault.

In his present official capacity, Payne couldn’t permit the county to enter an agreement that might possibly excuse an employee of Becker’s should he “run over a law enforcement officer” during a training session. “I prepared this as an attorney of Mr. Becker,” Payne noted. However, regarding a possible accident on an unimproved private road, he said, “I would think the county would accept the property as is.”

Evans said, “That clause is the reason the agreement with Mr. Becker was not ratified. The court wouldn’t sign it with that stipulation included in the document. With that clause, the agreement wouldn’t be acceptable to the taxpayers.”

Payne suggested tweaking the agreement, making the indemnification more specific and limiting it to the “open conditions of the property.” He also suggested that $2 million would be an acceptable amount of insurance.

As a commissioner pointed out, “The county’s been leaning hard on Mr. Becker for a long time without giving him any compensation or reimbursement.”

Evans asked if other law enforcement agencies that train at Becker’s ranch also have contracts. Payne said that Bandera County constables and other employees who participate in weapons qualification sessions would be covered under the county agreement. “For troopers with the Department of Public Safety, that’s between Mr. Becker and the State of Texas,” Payne said.

At that point, Sheriff Weldon Tucker told the court his department had been storing “ammo, training stuff and targets,” as well as a cache of the department’s mini 14 and the new AR 15 rifles at a secure location at Becker’s ranch.

Caught off-guard at the revelation, Evans noted, “I didn’t know about the storage. That must be included in the contract.”

Quickly concurring, Tucker said, “We need an audit and we need to do that today. We’ll take an inventory of everything stored out there and get it on the county’s insurance.”

In an interview on Tuesday, Jan. 19, Chief Deputy Richard Smith reported that the majority of the BCSO arsenal is kept in a locked cabinet in Lt. Allan Tucker’s office. “Since deputies are issued their own weapons, those secured in Lt. Tucker’s office are spare side arms and rifles,” he said. Smith opined that any weapons stored off-site are extras used during training sessions. “We have an ample supply at the jail and justice center for any incidents that can arise,” Smith added.

He also said that he and County Auditor Christina Moeller would conduct a complete inventory of weapons and equipment stored at Becker’s private ranch as soon as possible. Becker is a reserve deputy with the BCSO.

In related business, action on a proposed rental agreement between Bandera County and Becker for use of his radio tower was postponed until a regular meeting of commissioners court in February.