Court Hands County Legal Victory

Ruling goes against townships in police-services lawsuit

Wednesday’s administrative briefing for the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners was indeed brief, and its agenda didn’t contain the day’s biggest news: A state Court of Appeals ruling giving the county a legal victory, possibly marking the end of a years-long dispute with three townships – Ypsilanti, Salem and Augusta – over the cost of sheriff deputy patrols.

“The court completely vindicated the county’s position,” commissioner Jeff Irwin said after Wednesday’s meeting.

The three townships sued the county in 2006, disputing the amount that the county billed townships for sheriff deputy patrols, as well as the way those charges were determined. The case was initially heard in Monroe County Circuit Court by Judge Joseph Costello, who dismissed 12 of the townships claims but who also ruled that the county had committed a technical violation of the Open Meetings Act.

The townships then took their case to the Court of Appeals, which upheld Costello’s rulings on the 12 claims and reversed the decision on the Open Meetings Act violation. The appeals court also indicated that because the county later re-enacted decisions that took place during the meeting that technically violated the Open Meetings Act, “any issue pertaining to the existence of a violation of the act was rendered moot.”

Issued Wednesday morning, the unanimous ruling of the three appellate judges included some harsh assessments of the merit of the appeal. The court describes one of the townships’ arguments as “merely one more pellet in the shotgun approach to this litigation as the Townships fail to provide any discussion or law in support of this conclusion.” [Read the complete 18-page document in PDF format.]

In another instance, commenting on the townships’ claim that the county violated the Open Meetings Act, the court ruling states: ”It is incredible to this Court that the Townships could have expended sufficient time and effort in pursuing this one claim to justify their contention of entitlement to over $300,000 in attorney fees and costs, particularly given their inability to substantiate the primary claims underlying this cause of action.”

The Court of Appeals also ruled that the circuit court must calculate the amount that the townships owe the county for an 11-month period (from Jan. 1, 2006 through Dec. 6, 2006). During that time the townships, because of their pending litigation, received police services at a lower rate than the county had determined.

At Wednesday night’s briefing, board chair Rolland Sizemore Jr., who represents a district that includes a portion of Ypsilanti Township, said he didn’t want to comment until he’d had a chance to read the ruling. Commissioner Wes Prater, whose district covers part of Ypsilanti Township as well as Augusta Township, also had not read the ruling in detail. Ken Schwartz, the commissioner for District 2, which includes Salem Township, declined comment until the case was closed, noting that the townships still had other options, including appealing to the state Supreme Court.

When asked how the decision might affect current negotiations for contracts starting in 2010, Sizemore said that negotiations would move forward and that he had faith in the new sheriff, Jerry Clayton. [Former sheriff Dan Minzey, who was defeated by Clayton in the August 2008 Democratic primary, had supported the townships in their dispute.]

Because of the difficult economy, Sizemore said, “we have to work together.” He said that’s the good thing to come out of the otherwise dismal economic situation that all local governments face. “The little pockets of ‘This is my territory, not yours’ – that won’t work any longer.”

Looking Ahead: Feb. 18 Board Agenda

The main item for next Wednesday’s meeting is on the agenda for the Ways & Means Committee, which immediately precedes the regular board meeting. County administrator Bob Guenzel plans to make a presentation on county revenue projections for the next four years. At the board’s Feb. 4 meeting, Guenzel gave a grim outlook for the coming years, based in large part on lower property tax revenues. The goal for the Feb. 18 meeting, he told commissioners, is to reach agreement about what revenue projections should be used as county staff puts together its budget. He also wants commissioners to give feedback on some longer-term reforms he plan to propose. Their decisions won’t be set in stone, he said, but will help provide guidance in identifying how much to cut on the expense side.

David Behen, deputy county administrator, said they’d be adding an agenda item about approving a short-term arrangement to provide information technology services to Pittsfield Township through May 31. The township asked the county for help when the person managing its IT services died earlier this month. “It was truly an emergency,” said commissioner Kristin Judge, whose district covers Pittsfield Township.

Later, Judge told The Chronicle that the township is talking with county staff about having the county handle its IT, human resources and finance services. The biggest issue, she said, is figuring out how much to charge the township so that the county’s costs are covered, and how to ensure county staff has enough manpower to handle the additional work. If these issues can be worked out with Pittsfield, she said, the county might be able to market those services to other townships. “I think it’s really going to be a positive change for everyone,” she said.

Finally, Wes Prater asked that county staff draft a resolution for the Feb. 18 meeting to honor U.S. Rep. John Dingell, whose district includes parts of Washtenaw County, and who this week became the longest-serving member in Congress – ever. “We should make it really over the top,” Jeff Irwin suggested, “If not in volume, then in emphasis.”


  1. By Linda Diane Feldt
    February 12, 2009 at 7:47 am | permalink

    I have a question about lowered tax revenues I’ve not seen addressed anywhere. My taxes on my house will continue to rise for some time, even as the actual property value and SEV declines. That is true because of the Headlee amendment, which keeps my taxes far lower than if I had purchased my house recently.
    Aren’t there a fair number of parcels where this is true? Won’t that provide some stability in tax revenues? Anyone know numbers associated with this group of properties who will continue to pay more and more in taxes, even as the more recent purchasers pay less?

    It must have enough of an impact to somewhat mitigate the falling property values – it has kept my taxes at about 50% of what someone would pay for a recently purchased home of similar value. But that gap will continue to close even if the value falls. I will pay more in taxes each year for many years to come. I bought my house 26 years ago.

    It isn’t accurate to say that revenues on all properties will decrease. Or are there really so few people who still benefit from the Headlee amendment (people don’t stay in their houses long) that this continuing tax stream increase is irrelevant?

  2. By Vivienne Armentrout
    February 12, 2009 at 8:20 am | permalink

    Actually, the phenomenon you (LDF) are describing is due to Proposal A, passed in 1995, not to the Headlee Amendment (which requires a popular vote for new taxes and decreases the amount of millages over time, among other things).

    Two things are happening to the taxable value (TV) of your home. One is that it is increasing each year by 5% or the rate of inflation, whichever is less (and it has been less for a long time). The other thing is that as it is rising to meet the state equalized value (SEV), that number is falling. So as the assessed value of your home drops because of the loss in market value, it approaches the TV. If the SEV becomes equal to or less than the TV, your taxes will stop increasing (except when the housing values go back up). You can’t be taxed more than the current SEV, even if your house was worth a great deal more a few years ago.

    The slow increase in TV does slightly mitigate the loss of revenue, but the county benefited much more from the “pop-up”, when houses owned for a long time were sold and a new, higher tax could be levied. Those transfers have dropped with the housing market, causing a lot of this crisis for the county budget. Too bad that for many years the county budgets were projected on the most optimistic scenario, that the rate of growth in property value would continue indefinitely. As the former budget director used to say, “the best predictor of the future is the past”.

  3. By Linda Diane Feldt
    February 12, 2009 at 9:05 am | permalink

    Thanks for the correction, Vivienne. I hadn’t thought at all about the co-called “pop-up” property sales and the effect of people staying put. Another interesting wrinkle to factor in.

  4. By Jeff Irwin
    February 12, 2009 at 12:05 pm | permalink

    LDF is correct in asserting that this ‘smoothing’ effect created by proposal A slowed the increases in taxes and revenue in the boom years. Also, it slowed the decreases in bad years (by tapping into the cushion between SEV and taxable value). Unfortunately, this cushion has been obliterated by the recent, precipitous drop in values. The result is a high number of parcels with the same SEV and taxable value. This started happening a few years back and the continued slide in property values has been much more directly reflected in declining revenues in the last year.

  5. February 12, 2009 at 2:18 pm | permalink


    Which government body (the county?) would have the data set available with the table with the column headings


    If you started from that dataset, you could do your own modeling of what the impact of property value changes and transactions would have on tax revenues.

  6. By Conan Smith
    February 12, 2009 at 3:13 pm | permalink

    Linda: Your inclination about the Headlee amendment isn’t far off either; it did have an impact on property tax revenue that we are dealing with today. As VA notes, the Headlee/Prop A interaction reduces the millage rate in good economic years. Prior to an Engler-era amendment, state law also allowed the millage rate to go back up in bad years. Now, we have both the reduced tax base (your home’s value) and an artificially restricted tax rate. It’s a double whammy to all forms of local government. Originally the Headlee/Proposal A interaction created a much better “smoothing effect” that would have slowed this government finance crisis considerably.

    Ed: The County equalization office provides data like that and does exactly the modeling you are suggesting to anticipate tax revenue for future budget cycles. Our budget estimate for this coming year includes a wide range because we are all in new territory where SEV and TV will begin to meet for an enormous number of parcels. If thereafter SEV continues to decline, so will the TV. This is all complicated by the indeterminate rate of inflation which impacts the aforementioned Headlee calculation among other things (particularly on the expense side).

    You can view Ann Arbor parcel info at this link.

  7. By Vivienne Armentrout
    February 13, 2009 at 11:25 am | permalink

    I should also have mentioned the transfer tax. The county (but not other local municipalities) collects this tax when real estate changes hands. I’m guessing that revenues from that tax have also dropped.