Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners meeting (Dec. 7, 2009): In a continuation of last Wednesday’s board meeting, commissioners on Monday night approved a contract amendment with Ypsilanti Township, reducing by seven the number of sheriff deputies that will be dedicated to patrolling the township in 2010. Though several commissioners voiced concerns over the deal, only Jeff Irwin voted against the resolution.
Several issues remain unclear, however, including what the township will do regarding sheriff patrols in 2011, and how its decrease in patrols starting Jan. 1, 2010 will affect the rest of the county. Commissioner Kristin Judge said the situation demonstrates that the system of policing in Washtenaw County is broken.
And echoing an idea floated at Saturday’s Ann Arbor city council retreat, commissioner Barbara Bergman said that perhaps it’s time for the city of Ann Arbor to consider contracting its police services with the sheriff’s department, too.
Background: Voters Reject Millage
A police services millage was on the Nov. 3, 2009 ballot for Ypsilanti Township voters, but was rejected by a narrow margin, with 51.42% of votes cast against it. The four-year, 2 mill tax would have raised an estimated $3.23 million annually for the township.
The millage was put on the ballot to raise additional funds to pay for the 38 sheriff deputies that currently work in the township. Like several other municipalities in the county, Ypsilanti Township doesn’t have its own police force. Instead, the township contracts with the sheriff’s department, which provides deputies dedicated specifically to Ypsilanti Township.
The November millage proposal was the second one for Ypsilanti Township this year related to police services. In May, Ypsilanti Township voters approved a four-year, 3.5 mill tax for police services, which was estimated to raise $5,475,627 annually. But faced with a dramatic drop in property values – Ypsilanti Township’s housing market is one of the hardest hit in the county, and its manufacturing base is in decline – revenues from property taxes were lower than expected, and are likely to drop even further. Township officials said they needed the additional 2 mill in order to pay for the 38 sheriff deputies.
Soon after the November millage proposal failed, township supervisor Brenda Stumbo sent a letter to sheriff Jerry Clayton and county administrator Bob Guenzel, requesting that the county amend its contract with the township and reduce the number of deputies by 10, from 38 to 28.
The resolution that was presented to the board of commissioners – following several days of negotiations between county and township officials – called for a reduction of seven deputies. [.PDF file of resolution and cover memo. See previous Chronicle coverage from the Nov. 16, 2009 meeting of the county's police services steering committee and of the Dec. 2, 2009 board of commissioners meeting.]
The resolution passed during the Dec. 2 Ways & Means Committee meeting, on which all commissioners serve. Commissioner Jeff Irwin cast the only dissenting vote. At the board meeting immediately following Ways & Means, some commissioners expressed a desire to discuss the issue with others in their districts before taking a final vote, so they voted to continue the board meeting on Monday, with the sole agenda item being the Ypsilanti Township resolution.
Commissioner Deliberations: “A Lose/Lose Proposition”
At Monday’s board meeting, commissioner Jeff Irwin reiterated his objections to amending the contract with Ypsilanti Township, saying his reasons were the same as the ones he’d stated at last Wednesday’s meeting. From Chronicle coverage:
Jeff Irwin said he’d have no issue amending the contract if the county weren’t coming out financially behind. As it stands, a reduction of seven deputies means the county will lose $1.013 million in anticipated revenue from Ypsilanti Township. Expenditures from the change will only decrease by $639,852, however – leaving the county with a projected shortfall of $373,762. Irwin said there’s no mention of the supervisory position within the sheriff’s department that oversees these deputies – that job will not be eliminated, and the county is absorbing the cost, along with other overhead.
On Monday, Irwin said that for a township with more than 50,000 residents, it isn’t clear whether 38 contract deputies are sufficient – looking at where the county’s general fund deputies spend their time, he said, it was difficult to support a reduction in contract deputies. [There are 12 sheriff deputies paid for out of the county's general fund. These general fund deputies are deployed throughout the county, as needed. From January through August of 2009, general fund deputies spent more time in Augusta Township than anywhere else, followed by Ypsilanti Township.]
On top of that concern, Irwin said, was the fact that the county will be losing money from this reduction in service, and that other parts of the county will be negatively affected.
Commissioner Leah Gunn said she’d reluctantly support the resolution. She reminded her colleagues that providing sheriff deputy patrols was the county’s biggest service not mandated by the state. And in addition to paying for general fund deputies, she said, the county is subsidizing the cost of the contract deputies out of its general fund. [The difference between what municipalities pay for a sheriff deputy patrol and what the county says it costs has been in dispute for years, resulting in a still-unresolved lawsuit that the townships of Ypsilanti, Augusta and Salem filed against the county.]
What’s more, Gunn noted, Ann Arbor, Saline, Chelsea, Ypsilanti, Milan, Pittsfield Township and Northfield Township all have their own police departments, though residents in those areas also pay county taxes which support the sheriff’s department. “Somewhere, something needs to be fixed,” she said. Noting that the lawsuit had resulted in nearly $1 million in legal fees for the county, Gunn said she felt that if the board didn’t pass this resolution, Ypsilanti Township would simply stop paying for the patrols, and the county would be forced to sue.
Commissioner Jessica Ping said she’d heard that Ypsilanti Township was planning to bring back the millage proposal in May of 2010. Rolland Sizemore Jr., the board’s chair and a commissioner whose district includes a portion of Ypsilanti Township, clarified that township officials were planning to put it on the August 2010 ballot. They didn’t want to incur the cost of holding an election in May, he said. But even assuming that the millage passes in August, Sizemore noted that those tax revenues wouldn’t be collected until the end of 2010.
Commissioner Barbara Bergman said that the township still hadn’t paid the county the $2 million it was ordered to pay by the Court of Appeals, which ruled against the townships in their lawsuit. [The townships appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court. In September 2009, the Supreme Court denied a request to hear the appeal, but later that month the townships filed a motion asking the court to reconsider its decision. That request is still pending.] “I wonder if they ever plan to pay for anything?” Bergman said.
Commissioners Mark Ouimet and Ken Schwartz, who represent districts on the western and northeastern sides of Washtenaw County, respectively, both said they’d support the resolution. Both reported that officials they’d talked to in their districts were concerned about the impact that a reduction in Ypsilanti Township patrols would have on the rest of the county.
Schwartz asked if Ypsilanti Township had already signed a contract for 2011 – he pointed out that the resolution indicated they had. Corporation counsel Curtis Hedger said he didn’t think the township had signed it, and suggested amending the resolution to reflect a deal only through 2010. Guenzel said that township officials indicated they weren’t sure if they could sign the 2011 contract, given their financial situation. The 2011 contract calls for a 4% increase in the cost of the deputy patrols.
Commissioner Kristin Judge described the system of policing in Washtenaw County as “broken.” The Ypsilanti Township request highlights some big questions that the entire county needs to address as a community, she said, including who should provide police services and how they should be paid for. Later in the meeting, she urged Sizemore to form working groups so that they could tackle the issue.
Bergman, who represents one of the county’s Ann Arbor districts, said that in light of the city’s budget crisis, perhaps Ann Arbor officials should examine their paradigm of policing and consider contracting with the sheriff’s department, too. She said she had nothing but respect for police chief Barnett Jones and his staff, but perhaps they could be absorbed into the sheriff’s department. [The idea of the city contracting with the sheriff's department for police services was floated at the Dec. 5 city council budget retreat, but seemed to garner little if any interest from councilmembers.]
Commissioner Conan Smith said that with Ypsilanti Township’s current police services millage – 3.5 mills, raising roughly $5.4 million annually – there seemed to be enough money to pay for all 38 deputies, which cost about $145,000 each, per year. However, he said he understood that the township faced a drop in property tax revenues, as did the rest of the county. [In particular, General Motors is closing its massive Willow Run transmission plant in Ypsilanti Township, with a complete shutdown expected by the end of 2010. GM is the township's biggest taxpayer.]
Saying he agreed with Irwin’s concerns, Smith said that given the drop in property tax values, he felt it was reasonable for Ypsilanti Township to request a commensurate drop in the number of its contract deputies.
Irwin said he was glad that Smith had brought up the township’s existing police services millage. He wondered why township officials, faced with the November millage defeat, immediately lept to the conclusion that they needed to cut deputies, without exploring other options – such as using some revenue from the township’s general fund. He noted that the county was forced to pay millions of dollars out of its general fund to pay for the county’s public safety needs – why couldn’t the township do the same? He said he was frustrated that Ypsilanti Township is cutting back on police services, which will only exacerbate the decline in property values. “It seems like a lose/lose proposition,” he said.
Smith agreed that it seemed like a rash approach and the wrong decision from a budgetary standpoint. The benefits of proactive policing are clear – it’s less costly and has greater social impact, he said. With cuts to the contract deputies, Ypsilanti Township’s capacity to do proactive work will be diminished, as it will be for the rest of the county. However, he added, township officials had the right to prioritize their spending. And the county has a moral obligation to provide public safety. He praised the sheriff for working to absorb the financial shortfall that would result from the contract change, and said that this solution was better than ending up in court, which wouldn’t be good for anyone in the county.
Schwartz said the county was lucky that the sheriff had vacant positions that could be offered to the seven deputies that Ypsilanti Township would be cutting, but that it was a one-time solution. If Ypsilanti Township or any other contracting community wants to do something similar, they might not be so lucky, he said. Schwartz noted that when he served on the Superior Township board, they had to dip into their general fund to pay for police services until they could pass a millage for that. He wondered if that would be an option for Ypsilanti Township.
Ouimet returned to a point he’d made at the Dec. 2 board meeting – the county needs a policy to deal with municipalities that want to change their contracts, regardless of whether they are increasing or decreasing the number of contract deputies. It’s a much broader issue than just this situation with Ypsilanti Township, he said.
County staff and sheriff Jerry Clayton are working on a policy to address this situation, Sizemore said.
Clayton attended Monday’s meeting, but did not address the board. Commissioners passed the resolution to amend Ypsilanti Township’s contract for sheriff deputies – reducing it from 38 to 31 – with only Irwin voting against it.