The Michigan Supreme Court has refused to reconsider its decision to deny an appeal from three local townships in a long-running legal battle with Washtenaw County over the cost of sheriff deputy patrols. The decision, issued on Feb. 26, effectively ends the townships’ recourse with the state’s high court.
The county now plans to ask for a judgment for the amount it believes the townships of Augusta, Salem and Ypsilanti owe to cover previous costs of providing those deputy patrols in 2006. County officials had intended to make that move in September of 2009, when the Supreme Court first decided not to hear the case. At the time, the county was planning to seek payment in the $2 million range.
This week, Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, told The Chronicle that he didn’t want to speculate on the amount the county will be asking for when they file the request with 38th Circuit Court Chief Judge Joseph Costello. The county will be calculating the amount based on the hours of service during most of 2006 – when the sheriff’s department provided patrols to the three townships without a contract – at a rate previously approved by the Court of Appeals, Hedger said.
The Dispute: A Recap
Here’s some background from The Chronicle’s Sept. 14, 2009 report on the legal battle between Washtenaw County’s administration and board of commissioners, and three townships on the eastern side of the county.
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.
As of September 2009, the county had spent about $1 million in attorney fees since 2006 on the lawsuit, which has been handled primarily by the law firm Dykema Gossett. On Monday, Hedger told The Chronicle that attorney fees for the county have increased only nominally since then.
Negotiating a New Rate for Deputy Patrols
The issue of how much municipalities pay for deputy patrols – also called police services – was temporarily settled in December 2008, when the county board agreed to a one-year contract extension with all townships that pay for the patrols. In 2008, townships paid $136,503 per deputy. In 2009, that amount increased 4% to $141,963.
Townships requested a two-year extension with 2% increases in 2010 and again in 2011. The county board initially approved a shorter period, through 2010, at a 2% increase. Then in July 2009, the board extended the contract through 2011, with a 4% increase that year.
Settling the issue is one of the priorities outlined by the administration and board for 2010. [See Chronicle coverage: "County Reviews Major Initiatives for 2010"]
As part of a much broader presentation about his department’s operations and goals, Sheriff Jerry Clayton briefed commissioners on the topic of contract patrols at their Feb. 17, 2010 meeting. Clayton said his goal was to keep the cost of patrols high enough so that it doesn’t drive the board to eliminate the service because they’re not covering expenses, while being low enough for local municipalities to afford. Clayton said he plans to bring a proposal to the board by the third quarter of this year.
Township officials have argued that the overhead that’s calculated into the charge is too high. For their part, some commissioners believe that municipalities with their own police departments, like Ann Arbor, are being double-taxed – residents pay for the city’s own police services, as well as for the county to help cover the cost of sheriff’s patrols.
The issue of affordability is a significant one. Late last year, Ypsilanti Township was forced to cut the number of patrols that serve that township. A millage put before Ypsilanti Township voters – which would have paid for sheriff patrols – failed in November 2009. As a result, township officials said they didn’t have the funds to pay for all of the 38 deputies that were contracted to cover the township, and they received approval from the county board to change the township’s contract, dropping the number of deputies to 31.
Augusta Township officials chose not to ask voters for a millage to cover deputy patrols, so in January 2010 the three deputy positions that it had funded were shifted to Scio Township, which had requested additional patrols.
Meanwhile, sheriff Jerry Clayton has told county commissioners that he’s working toward a more sustainable approach to the issue of how public safety is provided throughout the county, not just in areas that have contracts for deputy patrols.