Mason, MI – Ingham County Commissioners will vote tonight on whether to put a county-wide millage proposal on the November ballot that would guarantee funding for the sheriff's department. Budget cuts could eliminate sheriff's patrols in several rural townships that don't have their own police.
Deputy Jacob Newton is part of the sheriff's rural road patrol. Most of his time is spent making traffic stops and he's about to make another one.
"It looked like there was a female driving a teal blue van up here," Newton observes. "My radar gave a reading of 67-miles per hour. This is a 55-mile per hour zone."
About 12 percent of people in Ingham County live in rural townships that offer lower taxes and very few services. There's no trash pickup, no recycling, and often, no police. When they call 911, they rely on the sheriff's department - or the state police - to answer. The response time could be 15 or 30 minutes - or never, if it's not an emergency.
Newton and other deputies log a lot of miles patrolling the townships. Newton enjoys his work helping to keep the roads safe.
"I drive them, my family drives them, my friends drive them so it's a good feeling knowing that I may make a difference in someone's train of thought, and maybe they'll slow down and possibly prevent an accident, or wear their seat belt and help save them in an accident," Newton says.
Cutting funding for these rural patrols came up earlier this year when county commissioners started looking for ways to offset a $5.5 million budget shortfall.
Commissioner Andy Schor, who chairs the county's law enforcement committee, says he wanted to find a way to get the townships to contribute to their police protection.
"If you're the 88 percent of the people who live in a city or an urban area, then you're paying for your own police and you're paying for the county sheriff's department, while if you're the 12 percent of the people who live in the rural township area, you're paying your county taxes, but that's it," Schor says. "It's kind of like the city people are double paying."
Initially, commissioners suggested that townships work together to pay for sheriff's road patrols or set up their own police departments. The county offered to continue to provide funding for two years to give the townships time to set up those agreements.
But the townships rebelled. Hundreds of people showed up at commission meetings to complain.
As an alternative, Schor proposed a county-wide millage earmarked for the sheriff's department. Under his new plan, cities that already pay for their own police would get something extra.
"With the idea that it would cover regional services," Schor says. "So, we would cover a certain percentage for local SWAT teams in Lansing and East Lansing, the metro squad, K-9; a variety of other county-wide services that are used more in the cities. The millage would provide for that as well as the out county road patrols. So everybody would get a benefit."
Commissioner Todd Tennis represents southeast Lansing. He supports the millage, even though it wouldn't benefit his district very much. Tennis says at least under this plan, the townships would be paying part of the cost for their primary law enforcement.
"I hope that we can encourage the rural parts of the county to step up in the future and help pay for their own," Tennis says. "And if this millage passes, in fact, it will be the first time that there's a dedicated millage in those parts of the county that does go just for law enforcement, as opposed to most other areas of the county which already are paying taxes just for law enforcement. So it's a step in that direction."
But many in the townships are opposed to the new plan.
Commissioner Steve Dougan represents four rural townships that don't have their own police departments, but also don't want to pay more taxes.
"I've heard from many people that say we're already contributing to county taxes, we are paying our fair share for lots of services that we don't get a proportionate benefit for," Dougan says. "This is one where it's not unreasonable that the fair share we're already putting in should give us this service."
Dougan says voters in the urban areas such as Lansing and East Lansing probably won't support the millage, so it would be irresponsible for the county to spend the $75,000 it would cost to put it on the ballot.
Commissioners will vote tonight. Chairman Andy Schor and others say it's too close to call.
What is clear is that if it doesn't get on the ballot, or if it goes down to defeat in November, the sheriff's department budget will be cut by $1.5 million per year for the next three years.
At the end of three years, the road patrols will be completely eliminated.