At Saturday’s budget retreat for Washtenaw County commissioners, a discussion on public safety issues included mention of the lawsuit that three townships filed against the county in 2006, disputing the cost of sheriff deputy patrols. That prompted us to ask for an update: Just what’s the status of that legal wrangling?
The last time we checked in, the state Court of Appeals had just handed the county a victory, and it appeared that the years-long courtroom battle might be ending. Not so. The three townships – Augusta, Salem and Ypsilanti – have appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, and just last week the county filed its response, according to Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporate counsel. Now, the groups will have to wait until the court decides whether or not to hear the appeal. Hedger said the process could take several more months.
Aside from the lawsuit, the issue of how contracts for sheriff deputy patrols are handled – and how they’re paid for – is an ongoing concern. Late last year, the board of commissioners approved a one-year extension of the deal currently in place with townships that contract with the sheriff’s department. That extension sets a 2% increase in the cost for 2010. The townships had asked for a two-year extension at 2%.
Before the board approved the deal, several commissioners expressed concern that they were agreeing to a relatively modest rate increase for a budget that hadn’t yet been set (fiscal year 2010). Their fear was that costs would increase more than 2%, with the county then picking up the difference. Subsequently, the county has projected it will face a $26 million deficit in 2010-11, and the administration and commissioners are working to identify cost-cutting measures to deal with that shortfall.
Some commissioners representing Ann Arbor have been vocal about their belief that residents of the city are being double-taxed: 1) paying for the city’s own police services, and 2) paying for services provided to municipalities that contract for sheriff patrols. They say the county has been subsidizing the cost of those patrols, and that townships need to pay an amount closer to the true cost of providing that service.
Based on the discussion at Saturday’s retreat, it appears there’s movement to rethink the contract-for-patrols approach. Commissioner Conan Smith said he’d like to move away from the jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction view of public safety, and look at an equitable, countywide allocation of resources. Sheriff Jerry Clayton, who was elected in November, attended the retreat and said they could explore different options.
Meanwhile, the tab will keep growing for all parties. Since 2006, the county alone has spent $991,177 in attorney fees to defend itself against the lawsuit.