Jerry Clayton's Vision
The sheriff has a plan to fix two of the county's thorniest problems.
From the May, 2017 issue
County sheriff Jerry Clayton is the most popular politician in Washtenaw County: he was the top vote-getter in last August's Democratic primary, outscoring even seven-term prosecutor Brian Mackie.
It's easy to see why. Eloquent and charismatic, yet soft-spoken and self-effacing, Clayton inherited a couple of hornet's nests when he took office in 2009, and calmed them both.
The first was the chronic deficits rolled up under his predecessor, Dan Minzey. After retroactively raising his budget year after year, some county commissioners were so angry they aided and abetted Clayton's challenge to his former boss.
The other was rapidly escalating bills for police services--the patrols the sheriff provides to townships without their own departments. Ypsilanti Township, the largest contracting government, was suing the county in an an ultimately futile attempt to overturn the increases. The township's legal fees alone totaled more than $1 million before the case was settled in 2011.
"It was extremely tough," Clayton says over coffee at Panera Bread on Washtenaw. "There was a lack of trust in the sheriff's office. There was a lack of faith in the leadership. There was a lack of faith in the service. Now it's eerily quiet."
Clayton made peace with the board by bringing the department's costs under control and with the townships by combining more responsive service with minimal price increases. "We understand that the kind of service required in Manchester is different from the kind of service required in Ypsilanti Township," he says. "And we've been able to keep the price down. It goes up, but by 1 percent a year. It can't be more, because our [township] partners are going to break under the burden of increasing contracts. But our costs go up by more than 1 percent a year--and the contract is up [for renewal] at the end of this year."
That's one reason the sheriff is willing to stake his popularity by advocating a countywide public safety millage. The other is that he figures as
many as half the prisoners in his jail wouldn't need to be there if the county could afford better mental health services and more substance abuse treatment.
"We're criminalizing the wrong things," Clayton says. "We're criminalizing, to some degree, mental health and substance abuse issues. That's the wrong approach."
There's no question a huge number of people in jail have social-service needs. "Approximately 50 percent are on some kind of psychotropic medication," the sheriff says. "And 70 percent of that 50 percent has some kind of dual diagnosis, some kind of substance abuse/mental health issue."
Clayton says that he and Trish Cortes, head of the county's Community Mental Health, "talk a lot about the intersect between what her staff does and what our staff does, both in the jail and in the street, and how in many circumstances we have the same client base--and we usually interact with them in moments of crisis."
Their departments are already working together, with Cortes's staff training Clayton's deputies on mental health issues. But Clayton says a public safety millage would allow them to do much more. "Let's go comprehensive," he urges. "Let's identify how this community should support people with mental health issues and what's the best strategy for providing that."
Strengthening human services should appeal to the county's liberal urban core--especially since Clayton's plan would also steer additional funds to municipalities like Ann Arbor and Pittsfield that pay for their own police forces. Holding down local costs for the sheriff's police services, meanwhile, should win over voters in the more conservative townships. In total, the sheriff figures a one-mill tax bringing in about $14 million annually would do the trick.
But will Clayton get to try? At a working session as the Observer went to press, Clayton and Cortes were scheduled to give a presentation to the board of commissioners on mental health and policing needs--a conversation that the sheriff hoped would lead to discussion of a millage. But "I don't know what the board's going to do," Clayton says. "I know what makes the most sense, what would have the most value. But I'm only one voice, and I don't get to vote."
Clayton's plan is an act of conviction from a man who's seen law enforcement from both sides.
"I took part in my share of knucklehead behavior as a kid," says Clayton, "but the consequences weren't so bad then as for kids today. Today a lot of kids get kicked out of school and even arrested ... for some of the things I did back then."
Clayton spent half of his high school years living in a dangerous part of Detroit, and knows he is "very blessed." He says the main reason his life turned out so differently from those of many of the people he grew up with was because of his status as a star football player at Cooley High School.
"Back then there was a code that gang members did not mess with athletes from their high school," he recalls. "That's because everyone took great pride in the accomplishments of athletes from their neighborhood and school and wanted them to go on and succeed and become a star."
But even some athletes "went down the wrong path because of all the temptation," the sheriff continues. "They wanted quick, easy money. Some of our best athletes got involved in crime. There was one guy I knew, who could have been an All-American, but I heard that he got killed execution style when he was twenty."
Clayton, though, worked summer jobs to save money for college, and in 1980 won a full football scholarship to EMU. While still in school, he got a part-time job with the sheriff's office as a work program supervisor, "one of the guys who took the crews out cleaning the road. I did it for two years and was offered a full-time position."
He never finished college--Clayton's one class short of getting a bachelor's degree in communications. "Sometimes I think of finishing it up at WCC and maybe getting a master's degree," he says. "But right now I am too busy actually doing my work."
The future sheriff rose to first lieutenant, but he retired in 2006. "It was made very clear to me that my skills weren't required," Clayton says with a tight smile. "I was OK with that. It was not the environment I wanted to be in."
He ran against Minzey in 2008 "because I felt that with the right leadership and the right vision the sheriff's office could make a tremendous impact. It was crystal clear to me what was possible. We can be more than an institution that locks people up."
That speaks to Clayton's core conviction. "The majority of those folks [in the county jail] don't pose a risk to the community," he says with quiet passion. "They're not violent offenders. They shouldn't be in jail.
"The people of this county have given us four years to get things done," Clayton concludes, "and I have built up political capital and the community's trust. I am in a unique position to make these fundamental changes to the criminal justice system."
For that to happen, though, he and Cortes must persuade the board--and the voters--to buy into the vision.
"Something is going to happen," says Pittsfield commissioner and clinical psychologist Felicia Brabec. "We have things to do and not enough resources from operating millages. If we don't have additional revenue, we'll have public safety shortages.
"We're looking at options to continue level of services and seeing if we can improve things. One way is a millage."
Clayton believes a millage is the best way to "provide relief for the general fund budget. A lot of mental health's dollars are restricted federal dollars. We need dollars that aren't restricted."
They need them for what the sheriff calls "Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion." "We're the first responders. We have a person in crisis, and we take them to emergency [rooms that] are not equipped to deal with it, so they're going to end up in jail. And one of the worst things for people in a mental health crisis is isolation, restriction, and seclusion.
"What if we had a community crisis center where they could get triaged and stabilized and then go back home?" he asks. He thinks that could keep a lot of people out of the criminal justice system--and out of his jail.
Though Clayton doesn't know where such a center could be located, he knows where it shouldn't be: "We don't want it in the jail. Jail's just making things worse!"
He makes an equally strong case for helping the townships with policing costs. "The current contract model is not sustainable," he says. "Although our contracting partners pay over $150,000 for a police services unit, that doesn't cover the true costs [of] about $180,000. That's not just for the deputy. That's direct costs, indirect costs, and overhead."
With seventy-nine deputies, aka police service units, under contract, that means an annual $2 million gap is being covered by the county. To keep that from expanding further, "I've proposed about 6 percent [increases] for the next four years. We can sustain with these increases for the next four years--but that's it. I've advocated to do the millage sooner rather than later because why wait until the boat is sinking?"
Will the board sign on? "I don't know," says board chair and Ann Arbor commissioner Andy LaBarre. "What I know for certain is we're likely going to have long-term budget issues around public health and human services and, most acutely, mental health. A millage is probably the simplest way to go about solving this. It's a yes-or-no question directly to the public: do you want to tax yourself more for these services or not?"
Will the board ask the question? "We might," replies LaBarre, "but we might not."
Brabec, the previous board chair, also can't predict how her colleagues will vote. "A third of the board is new" since November, she points out. "People understand the revenue, but will people understand the need? We haven't had any individual conversations, and as a whole board we haven't talked about it.
"We've asked if it's possible. Within the next couple of months we'll know."
With several other local millages already scheduled this year, timing will be a question if the commissioners decide to go ahead. "We know the Ann Arbor school board will have a sinking fund millage in May and the special ed renewal in November," Brabec says (see Inside Ann Arbor, p. 13). And there may be a Water Street millage in Ypsilanti."
LaBarre says if the board does ask for a millage, it'd most likely be on the August or November ballot. He readily acknowledges the public safety need--"Sheriff Clayton has squeezed it as much as it could be done, but there's a limit"--and the mental health need--"the state is saying to do more with less to make everything better--well, it doesn't." And he likewise admits "those issues are interrelated, because without mental health services we will exacerbate the need for more public safety funding."
But LaBarre also acknowledges that it's likely to be hard for the board to decide. "The last two years have been difficult, and we have struggled to make decisions." Just choosing a new county administrator took a year and a half.
Will Clayton get the chance to fundamentally change the county's criminal justice system?
"There have been many discussions around funding mental health and public safety, and from all the numbers I've seen it's likely that additional resources may be needed," says first-term Ann Arbor commissioner Jason Morgan. "But there are a lot of other issues: veterans, transportation, affordable housing, community and economic development.
"The bottom line for me is if there's a proposal that helps people directly, I'd support putting it to the voters. But there needs to be more discussion before we put the millage on the ballot."
With just three months until August and six until November, the commissioners will have to move fast if they want to put Jerry Clayton's vision before the voters this year.
No matter what the board decides, Brabec sees hard choices ahead. As we went to press, she emailed that she'd just "learned that there may be additional, drastic cuts to [the federal Department of Health and Human Services] directly impacting our consumers who receive mental health services. In my mind, either we ask the voters for additional revenue or we need to make more cuts."
Additional reporting by Madeline Strong Diehl
[Originally published in May, 2017.]
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