"We All Were Jackasses."
Ypsilanti Township v. the county
From the December, 2011 issue
Depending on your perspective, the war between Washtenaw County and Ypsilanti Township over the price of police services lasted either five or eight years.
It's five if you believe, as county officials do, that the conflict began when the township sued the county in 2006 over steeply rising prices for its contract with the county sheriff. But township leaders believe it started when the county adopted a methodology in 2003 that could have led to even higher prices.
Whatever you believe, the township lost the first battle in circuit court when the judge found for the county, and lost the second round when an appeals court upheld that decision. In a mediated settlement this summer, it agreed to pay the county $732,927. Augusta Township, the suit's other plaintiff, agreed to pay $16,500.
"Note that the plaintiffs had to pay the defendant, which is very unusual," says Ann Arbor commissioner Leah Gunn. "And another very important point: if they'd walked away at circuit court, they would not have owed one penny." Though the settlement is less than half the judgment the county sought, Gunn says they took it "because we were sick and tired of this stupid lawsuit, and that was the deal on the table."
"I was personally extraordinarily frustrated by the whole thing," says Ann Arbor commissioner and board chair Conan Smith. "I thought giving them a discount on the price was letting them be winners, but that wasn't rational. Once we went to mediation, we started really talking about our interests and we realized what we both wanted was for it to go away."
Smith says making it go away "came down to how many dollars and how do we save face so we don't look like jackasses. And we all were jackasses. It should never have gone this far. But the two sides both felt they were right, and there was emotional exacerbation on both sides."
"In the end, Ypsilanti Township essentially lost," says Ann Arbor commissioner Barbara Bergman.
won? Bergman doesn't hesitate. "Doug Winters."
Ypsilanti Township's attorney says it ain't so--though his firm, McLain & Winters, did bill the township $351,154 for its work on the case. That's a lot more than attorney Matta Blair got--$25,135, much of it for photocopies and driving--but also a lot less than the firm of Garan Lucow Miller got for handling much of the litigation--$759,317. Altogether, the township spent more than $1.1 million in legal fees. Add in the settlement, and that's about $36 for each of the more than 53,000 township residents.
Winters and Mike Radzik, the township's police services administrator, say the township still came out ahead. "We didn't prevail in court, but a lot of good came out of the lawsuit--and not just for Ypsilanti Township but for all twelve jurisdictions served by the sheriff's department," says Radzik. "We spent money to get there, but the money we saved now and into the future far exceeds it."
That's because in court "the county had to produce real numbers to back their [cost] claims," says Winters. "Look at what we're paying today versus what we would have paid had the county gotten its way. The difference is over $10 million." If not for the litigation, he figures, the county would have more than doubled the township's cost per deputy, from $105,863 per year in 2008 to $240,880 in 2009.
"I can't imagine what he's talking about," responds Leah Gunn. "It sounds like he's saying that price increase to cover the full costs would have happened, and it never happened and it never would have happened." The $240,880 figure was calculated back in 2003 by including both direct policing costs and a share of the county's overhead. But that's not what the county billed the governments that didn't sue. They paid a base price per deputy of $141,963 in 2009, and $144,803 in 2010.
Thankfully, all the arguing about the county's charge for policing and whether that reflects the true cost is in the past now. During two years of meetings with representatives from the county, townships, and sheriff's department, the county agreed to eat its overhead. By moving some other numbers around, the group came up with an annual cost per sheriff's deputy they could all agree on--$186,108--and a base price the townships were willing to pay: $150,595 in 2012, rising gradually to $155,157 by 2015. Overtime will add roughly another $10,000 a year.
In what Winters calls a "punitive" move, the county responded to Ypsi Township's suit by contending that it should pay more than the other townships--about 45 percent more. The mediator didn't buy that number, but agreed that the county had a case. "Because they didn't have a contract," Gunn says, "they didn't get the special contract price."
"We're relatively satisfied with the formula and confident the cost analysis was accurate and complete," says Radzik. "There is universal agreement on costs, and prices have stabilized into the near future."
Ypsilanti Township has reduced its contracted police force by thirteen deputies in the last four years, and is now down to thirty-one officers. But "we're adding four police officers next year because the voters passed an additional public safety millage," says Radzik.
The new four-year contract leaves county taxpayers subsidizing the Ypsi Township police force by more than $1 million a year. "I don't have the votes to change it," sighs Gunn. "I am disgusted."
[Originally published in December, 2011.]