“As long as we stick together,” says county commissioner Jessica Ping, “we can do this again next year.”

Ping lives in Lodi Township, which contracts with the county sheriff’s department to provide local police patrols. Under a four-year contract that expires in 2009, the cost per deputy shot up from $96,000 a year to $142,000—an average annual increase of 12 percent. Next year, though, the cost will rise just 2 percent—thanks to a resolution Ping and her township allies passed in November.

The move left Ann Arbor commissioners seething. “This is a benefit for townships without police forces like Ypsilanti, Superior, and Scio at the expense of the county,” asserts Leah Gunn, “and at the expense of those jurisdictions that have their own police forces like Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti City, and Saline.” The city commissioners say that even after the recent increases, the townships still aren’t paying the true cost of patrols—and that the new resolution will make things worse. Board chair Jeff Irwin says the county’s cost to put a deputy on the road is expected to increase by 4 to 4.5 percent next year—leaving a several-hundred-thousand-dollar hole in the sheriff’s budget that will probably have to be filled from the general fund.

“There’s going to be a human toll for this,” predicts Irwin. Barbara Levin Bergman explains that with falling home values cutting into property tax receipts, “we’re already being forced to cut between thirty and forty general-fund positions. This’ll just make it thirty-five or forty-five.”

Complicating everything, the two sides can’t agree on what a deputy’s time is worth. “The direct cost is one hundred thousand including fringes,” says Manchester Village president Pat Vailliencourt, while commissioner Ken Schwartz, who represents northeastern Washtenaw, maintains “the actual cost is $136,845—in other words, less than the $137,000 we’re paying [in 2008].”

“He’s wrong,” retorts Ann Arbor’s Gunn. “It’s more like one hundred and ninety thousand. In 1998 I asked for a very detailed cost breakdown for the deputies plus all the costs of everything else except corrections prorated across the department. And what I found out is the numbers are what they are, the cost is what it is, and you can’t deny it.”

Into this already heated discussion, county administrator Bob Guenzel dropped a bombshell: he now calculates the full annual cost at $243,825. He explains that while the township reps are citing salary expenses, “the higher number is what it costs us to put a deputy on the road fully loaded, plus a portion of the costs of running a police department, excluding correction.”

Guenzel hopes a committee can resolve the cost dispute this year. But the townships’ preemptive strike means that the bargain 2 percent rate is already locked into next year’s budget.

Actually, some of the township reps wanted to lock the rate in for two years. Ann Arbor commissioners credit Conan Smith, of northwest Ann Arbor, with curbing the damage: he voted for the limited rate increase in exchange for the shorter term.

“Conan played an important part in reducing it from two years to one year,” says Bergman. “This way it’s a one-year screw, not a two-year screw. So I guess we have to be grateful.”

“The sheriff’s department itself needs to be substantially revamped,” says Smith. “I thought this would give sheriff-elect Jerry Clayton time to really get in there and understand his budget without having the police service contracts hanging over his head.”

Clayton says he appreciates the extra time—and hopes to use it to ease the friction. “My team and I will get in there, and once we really understand the budget, we’ll take it on the road,” promises the burly sheriff-elect. “We’ll take it to Scio and to Superior and to Ypsilanti Township—where I live, by the way—and we’ll have town meetings where we’ll explain to the people, and, more importantly, we’ll listen to the people.

“Everybody knows we need to collaborate, and if there’s good will now and we show leadership, we can get the parties to agree,” Clayton predicts. “Of course, that means everybody gives a little, but if everybody does, I believe we can get a contract that’s fair to everybody.”