When Jerry Clayton became the new county sheriff two years ago, the board of commissioners told him to cut the department’s $38 million budget by half a million dollars in his first year in office. That seemed like a lot to ask–under his predecessor, Dan Minzey, spending rose by an average of $1.4 million a year.

Minzey, who served two four-year terms before losing to Clayton in the 2008 Democratic primary, always blamed the commissioners for his chronic deficits. Their “basic policy is flawed,” he told the Observer in 2007. “It requires overtime.”

If so, no one told Clayton. According to Greg Dill, Clayton’s head of administration, the new regime not only cut overtime spending by $800,000 in its first year–it found another $1 million a year in other savings. “We [also] increased our revenues,” Clayton adds. “We’re up about $400,000 in civil and special contracts, mostly finding cheaper ways to do things.”

A lot of the savings comes from better cooperation with other agencies. “My colleagues and I in the Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and the other police departments are sitting down together three or more times a month to find ways to combine services,” Clayton says. “There’s now one SWAT team in the county where there used to be four, and we’re combining dispatch and coordinating our K-9 units.”

Offsetting some of that efficiency is the need to staff the growing jail. “We’ll be fully operational in the second quarter of next year.” says Clayton, “Then we’ll be up to rated capacity of 428 inmates [from 342].” While that should end the overcrowding emergencies that forced more than 1,000 early releases during Minzey’s tenure, Clayton says he remains committed to “alternatives to incarceration like electronic tethering and work programs. If there are people here who are no danger to themselves or the community, they shouldn’t be here. Then we’ll have enough beds for people who are a threat to their community.”

To keep his budget under control going forward, Clayton says “we’re going to have to look at personnel, because 80 to 85 percent of our budget goes to salary and fringes. We’re looking at reductions through attrition right now–but my concern is that just because we can reduce our budget, it doesn’t mean that our workload can be reduced as well.

“We have to guard against getting to a minimum level of staffing,” the sheriff warns. “We’re close to if not at the tipping point in some contracted areas. Ypsilanti Township had forty-two deputies in 1998, and currently they have thirty-one. The ideal staffing level there would be fifty-seven and a half–and thirty-one and a half is the minimum. Right now, all we can do there is respond to calls for service–but not in too timely a manner.