Hard times usually mean more crimes, as some law-abiding citizens are driven to desperate straits. Not this time–at least so far. Reflecting a national trend, most crimes in most places in Washtenaw County declined last year, despite the worst economic downturn most people can remember.

Sheriff Jerry Clayton says that in the eleven townships his deputies patrol, “violent crimes, property crimes, crimes against persons, are all down–though there was a slight uptick in assaults.” Comparing 2010 to 2009, the sheriff’s jurisdictions reported a 25 percent drop in rapes, an 18 percent drop in robberies, a 9 percent drop in burglaries, and a 3 percent drop in larcenies.

Serious crime was down last year also in towns that have their own police forces. “Assault, rape, robbery, stalking–all your violent crimes–are down overall 28 percent, and burglaries are down 50 percent,” says Saline police chief Paul Bunten. “Larceny and fraud, unlawful entry–your small, nonviolent crimes–are up.”

In Chelsea, “last year, crime was down overall 9.8 percent,” says police chief Ed Toth. “Assault and battery, too–domestic assault was down 45 percent. Burglary was down 44 percent.” But as in Saline, some property crimes have gone up: “We saw a small spike in breaking and entering,” Toth reports, “and a 34 percent increase in larceny from a building.”

Chelsea mayor Jason Lindauer and other officials credit the improvement to more community engagement with police. Toth says residents “want to keep it a safe community, and they tell us when something’s taking place, and they get involved.”

Crime was down in Pittsfield Township, too–18 percent overall last year. “We’re trying to be proactive,” explains Matt Harshberger, head of safety services. “We have a community patrol unit that meets with neighborhood associations and business associations. And the first meeting they went to, they got enough information to solve three cases. That’s the kind of thing we want to be able to continue doing.”

Sheriff Clayton also credits county residents: “We’re a lot more engaged, and so are they. They’re giving us more information. For example, we had a number of home invasions [in the last two years] and the residents helped us identify them.”

Not only is crime down in a bad economy, it’s down even though most communities are shrinking their police forces. That worries some officials, who believe those trends can’t both continue.

The sheriff’s department has 272 officers today, down from 289 in 2003. During the same period, Chelsea went from nine to eight full-time officers. Saline has stayed steady with fourteen, while Pittsfield’s force has been reduced from forty-two to thirty-nine. Ann Arbor’s police department has shrunk the most, going from 216 officers in 2000 to 124 now.

“We’re at a critical point in Washtenaw County,” Clayton cautions. “There’s been a decline in the number of police officers for every agency except one or two in the last ten years. This is the floor. This is as low as we can go. Crime is down, but if we continue to reduce police officers, then those numbers will go up.”

But with crime down, will people pay more to keep their police forces from dwindling further?

Late last year, after eighteen months of investigation and vigorous debate, Clayton and the county’s police services steering committee announced what the county actually spends to pay and support a deputy for one year: $176,108. This year, the municipalities that contract with the sheriff for police services–including Manchester, Dexter, and Dexter, Scio, and Ypsilanti townships–are paying $150,594 per officer. While that fee has almost doubled since 2004, it’s still $1.8 million short of the committee’s estimate of what it costs the county to provide those seventy-four deputies.

The current fee structure expires at the end of the year, and township and village officials will soon be negotiating with the county commission to determine how much they’ll pay in 2012 and beyond. Manchester village council president Pat Vailliencourt, a police services committee member, says she expects the price “will probably go up, at least some. But [based on the committee’s work] at least we will be able to justify the increase.”

Pat Kelly, Dexter Township supervisor, says that if the price for contracting deputies rises, “I reckon I won’t like it, but I hope it’s fair. I don’t have firmly set in my head what a fair or unfair price would be, but I firmly believe there is a value to all the citizens of Washtenaw County to have seventy-four more pairs of boots on the ground.”

That military metaphor is common among contracting township and village officials, who emphasize that their deputies benefit the entire county. “In the western part of the county, many townships can’t afford to contract for deputies, and [other townships’ contracted] deputies are the first responders,” Vailliencourt points out. “Look at Ann Arbor: when we had the bank robberies there [in 2010], it was the contracted deputies that responded. It’s an important point that we have to make: We don’t want to be subsidized. We want what’s fair.”

Scio Township supervisor Spaulding Clarke puts it differently–and more bluntly. “The bottom line is we’d like to pay the least amount possible” for his township’s eight deputies.

If the price goes up too much, Dexter village assistant manager Courtney Nicholls says, “We’d look at other options. But right now it’s not feasible to go in another direction–or desirable, really.”

County commission chair Conan Smith recently floated the idea of a police-services millage to cover the difference between what local governments pay for a deputy and what it costs the county to provide one. But few in the western part of the county think such a tax would pass.

“I don’t know if it would fly,” says Clarke–but, he adds, “it might have a better chance of passing as a separate, earmarked millage. Rightly or wrongly, people have become distrustful of government–but people are often willing to pay for specific services.”

The starkest choice between higher taxes and fewer police officers is in Pittsfield Township. In May, Pittsfield will ask voters to increase their expiring public service tax from 1 mill to 1.95 mills. “Property tax revenue has gone down, and so has state revenue sharing,” explains supervisor Mandy Grewal, “and this will bring in the $3 million we’ll need to maintain the current level of police services.”

And if the measure fails? “We will have to go back in August for another, lower mill vote,” says Grewal, “which will necessitate a cut in services.” It’s a tough choice–but one that more local governments will face in the months and years ahead.