Late last Friday, the county was notified that the state Supreme Court has denied an appeal request from three local townships in a years-long legal battle with Washtenaw County over the cost of sheriff deputy patrols. Now the county plans to seek a judgment for roughly $2 million from the townships of Augusta, Salem and Ypsilanti to cover previous costs of providing those patrols.
In an email sent to the county Board of Commissioners on Monday morning, Curtis Hedger – the county’s corporation counsel – wrote that the county plans to ask 38th Circuit Court Chief Judge Joseph Costello to issue a judgment in the case. “We estimate that given the number of hours provided to the Townships without a contract in 2006 at the rate approved by the Court of Appeals, plus judgment interest which goes back to January 2006, the judgment should be in the $2 million dollar range,” Hedger wrote.
The townships filed suit against the county in early 2006 over the amount that the county charged townships for sheriff deputy patrols and the way those charges were calculated. Costello, who heard the case initially, dismissed most of the townships’ claims, which included assertions that the county was arbitrary and capricious in setting rates for deputy patrols.
However, Costello ruled in favor of the townships on their claim that the county had committed a technical violation of the Open Meetings Act. The townships had claimed that the county violated the Open Meetings Act because the public notice announcing an administrative briefing did not indicate that a quorum of the board would be present. The county argued that the act of posting a meeting notice was sufficient to indicate that a quorum would be there.
Costello also rejected the county’s request for payment from the townships for an 11-month period in 2006. During that period, deputy patrols were provided, even though the townships had refused to sign new contracts for those patrols, at higher rates.
The townships appealed, and in February 2009 the state Court of Appeals upheld Costello’s rulings, with two notable exceptions. Regarding the Open Meetings Act, the appeals court indicated that any technical violation of the act was rendered moot. The court made that assessment because the county had later re-enacted decisions that took place during the meeting at which the Open Meetings Act violation occurred.
Further, the Appeals Court sided with the county’s request for payment, and ordered Costello to calculate how much the townships owed the county for deputy services provided during the 11-month period. That amount – plus interest dating back to 2006 – would be in the ballpark of $2 million. Hedger told The Chronicle on Monday that he did not yet know exactly what that amount would be.
Separately, the county has spent nearly $1 million in attorney fees since 2006 to handle the lawsuit.
The county had considered the February Appeals Court ruling a victory, but in March the townships decided to appeal the decision – this time to the state Supreme Court. Now that the Supreme Court has denied the townships’ request for an appeal, it’s unclear what their next move will be. Doug Winters, an attorney who has represented the townships in this case, could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, in December 2008 the commissioners agreed to a one-year contract extension with all townships that pay the county to provide sheriff’s deputy patrols. Townships had been paying $136,503 per deputy in 2008, a rate which increased 4% to $141,963 in 2009. Townships requested a two-year extension with 2% increases in 2010 and again in 2011, but commissioners initially approved a shorter period, through 2010, at a 2% increase.
Then in July 2009, the board of commissioners – as part of the first phase of budget adjustments to deal with a projected $30 million general fund deficit – extended the contract with townships through 2011, with a 4% increase that year.
Even if the lawsuit is resolved within the next few months, wrangling over the cost of sheriff deputy patrols isn’t over. A police services steering committee – which includes sheriff Jerry Clayton, Saline chief of police Paul Bunten, several county commissioners and representatives from six townships and the village of Manchester – has been at work for months trying to resolve the cost question.
Townships dispute the amount that the county charges per deputy, saying the cost for overhead that’s calculated into the charge is too high. On the other side, some commissioners believe that residents of municipalities with their own police departments, like Ann Arbor, are being unfairly double-taxed. They contend that residents are paying for the city’s own police services, as well as for the county to subsidize the cost of sheriff’s patrols.
County administrator Bob Guenzel said the police services committee is working out a proposal on the issue, but that it hasn’t yet been presented to commissioners. He said there’s likely less of a sense of urgency at the moment, given that the contract has been extended through 2011.