By Neal McNamara

Townships, the Sheriffs DEpartment and how some ingham county commissioners want the two to come together

Ingham County Sheriff’s Deputy Eric Jungel turned on the emergency strobes, hit the gas and started speeding west toward U.S. 127 down some godforsaken country road. It was near midnight on Friday and we were south of Webberville in an area between Interstate 96 and Dansville, but it could have been Nebraska for all anyone knew because it was just empty field after empty field.

But Jungel knew where he was, and he was pushing his Chevrolet Impala at over 60 MPH through a hell of potholes, driving rain and darkness. We were trying to get to Leslie, probably a good 30 miles southwest of us and a 45-minute drive for someone obeying the speed limit.

The speed of the car and the urgency of the strobes flashing blue and red onto dark fields made the situation seem so urgent. It was, though: There was a street fight in progress somewhere in Leslie, and from the call over the radio, it seemed like a big one.

But the urgency of the situation faded with each strobe-lit mile. It took a long time just to get to 127, and still we were north of Mason. Even with Jungel hitting close to 90 MPH on 127, with visions of a police car hydroplaning into a ditch dancing in my head, it took a while to get down to Leslie.

“Sometimes you get there and it’s just a few pools of blood,” Jungel remarked about street fights in the county. What he meant was that it sometimes takes a while to get from one end to the other of the big square that is mother Ingham.

There was a point, while driving down 127, where it seemed pointless to treat the situation like an emergency anymore. What good are strobe lights and speed if the emergency is probably fading?

And by the time we reached downtown Leslie, whatever it was that had been going on was over. Jungel drove around for a while, looking down alleyways and into yards, searching for something suspicious. We eventually came upon two kids — whom Jungel estimated at 16 or 17 — walking around in the rain. Jungel learned that there had been a fight, and one of these kids was out looking for his friend’s shoes, which separated from the friend’s feet sometime during the tussle.

“It was a large group of juveniles that scattered some time ago,” Jungel said into his radio when he got back into the car.

That was at 12:44 a.m., 16 minutes from the end of Jungel’s eight-hour shift. When we arrived back at the Ingham County Sheriff’s Department headquarters shortly after midnight and Jungel packed it in for the night, it would only be two deputies and perhaps a random state trooper to patrol the highways and rural expanse of Ingham County.

The scarcity of police in Ingham County, Jungel told me repeatedly through the seven or so hours I spent with him Friday night, is a problem. To cut down the Sheriff ’s Department further, he said, would be unfathomable and a threat to the lives of out county residents.

An idea surfaces

A plan surfaced last week from a contingent of Ingham County commissioners that would save the Sheriff’s Department $3.5 million by a combination of reducing the road patrol and requiring the county’s 13 unincorporated townships to contract for road-patrol services they receive now by dint of paying taxes. The townships that would be affected are Williamstown, Locke, Alaiedon, Wheatfield, Onondaga, Leslie, Bunker Hill, Stockbridge, White Oak, Ingham, Vevay, Aurelius and Leroy (plus Dansville, a village). That $3.5 million savings would help bridge the $5 million county budget gap, some commissioners say.

The argument behind the proposal is that the residents in municipalities in Ingham County that have their own police forces — East Lansing, Lansing, Lansing Township, Meridian Township, Williamston, Delhi Township, Leslie, Webberville, Mason and Stockbridge — pay county taxes to support the Sheriff’s Department, but don’t get the benefit of road patrols that the townships do.

Some commissioners think it’s time the townships started paying for their own law enforcement.

But this proposal, not surprisingly, raised some feathers among the law enforcement community and the leaders of the 13 unincorproated townships. Last Monday, the story was on the front page of the Lansing State Journal in which Sheriff Gene Wriggelsworth called the proposal “an amputation” and at last Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting, a procession of law enforcement and township officials went before the body to express dismay with the proposal.

“I firmly believe that any further reductions to law enforcement will have a devastating impact on our ability to provide public safety services,” wrote State Police Capt. Dan Smith in a letter to the commissioners.

But the commissioners pinned as the brains behind this — Mark Grebner, D-East Lansing, and Andy Schor, D-Lansing — say that at this point there’s no proposal, but just an idea.

“Realistically, it’s nothing yet. Commissioner Schaefer took the document and sent it out. It’s a huge misstatement,” Schor said.

It was Commissioner Randy Schaefer, R-Williamston, who started ringing the bell on this to local media. Schaefer, who is incensed at this idea, or proposal, has been circulating a document penned by Ingham County Controller Matthew Myers, which sketches out Sheriff’s Department cuts and transitioning police services for the unincorporated townships. According to Myers’ proposal, the sheriff’s primary law enforcement operation would be cut from one captain, three lieutenants, seven sergeants, six detectives, 31 deputies and one communication officer to one lieutenant, one sergeant, four detectives, eight deputies and one communications officer, which would save about $3.5 million. That remaining primary law enforcement staff would cost an estimated $1.4 million.

“Some commissioners want to dismantle the Sheriff ’s Department,” Schaefer says. “It’s going to divide the county. This is not an urban versus rural issue; it’s a regional issue. It’s an Ingham County issue."

The Sheriff’s Department is worried about further cuts, and the leaders of the townships say they can’t afford to pay for their own police services. To them, the argument that Lansing and the rest with independent police departments are getting double-billed for a service they don’t use is bunk — the rest of the county services, like the jail or Health Department, are disproportionably used by city residents, and township residents are still paying for them.

“I understand the city argument. But those people that live in the city of Lansing drive outside the city of Lansing. The city of Lansing police aren’t going to come out there if one of them gets in a bad wreck or gets murdered,” Wriggelsworth said.

Muddy or clear?

Myers puts the dueling issues of slashing the sheriff’s road patrol budget and making the townships pay for road patrol into the same box. The proposal, he says, is all about shifting funding. What this would do, he says, is shift the cost of paying for road patrol onto the townships, and after that the primary law enforcement arm of the Sheriff’s Department — that’s the part that does road patrol — would be much smaller. But police officers would necessarily lose their jobs and the county wouldn’t necessarily be less protected.

If the townships took the burden of paying for deputies, the ones like Jungel that are doing road patrol now would simply go to a contract township, not the unemployment line.

“It looks like the county is going to cut road patrol. But we’re saying, ‘No, we want you to fund this.’ If you don’t want it, there’s no sense in funding it,” Myers said. “If the townships said, ‘We don’t want any contracts,’ that’s fine, then we’ll go ahead and eliminate positions.”

So, essentially, the staff to be cut in Myers’ proposal would go work for the townships. If the townships don’t want to pay for their services, however, then the Sheriff’s Department budget could be cut. However, Myers said, there are going to be across-the-board cuts to plug that $5 million budget hole.

Further, he said, the county would provide a $140,000 grant to each township for 2010, and a $70,000 grant in 2011. Myers estimated that a “fully loaded” deputy, including salary, a car and all the rest, would cost about $80,000. So, each township could afford 1.5 deputies. If neighboring townships pooled their money, Myers said, they could have even more deputies.

“We’re going to fund $1.5 million of primary law enforcement regardless, and then we’re going to subsidize almost $1.6 million while you transition,” Myers said. But, he admits, after those grants are up, the townships would be on their own to find the money.

Myers said the commission leadership asked him to put in writing a proposal of how to shift funding. However, he says, the idea of shifting road patrol funding to the townships has been going on for some 15 years. Grebner, he points out, has particularly been pushing for this for a long time.

“There are two different ways of looking at this,” Grebner said. “They think that we’re trying to eliminate positions in law enforcement; we think we’re getting the townships to pay their fair share.”

Grebner is a strong believer that the townships are getting free police. He said that 88 percent (that number comes from the county equalization department) of county residents live in an area that has its own police force. The other 12 percent pay county and local taxes, but their local taxes are much less than residents in the cities, which provide police services.

Grebner says that the road patrol is an unfair system that is a holdover from a time in Ingham County when each local government — from Lansing on down to Aurelius Township — all got one vote at the county level, which meant that sparsely populated parts of the county were getting the same funding for, say, parks, as Lansing.

“This is the last of the major disparities,” Grebner said.

Schor says that the issue won’t be brought up at the county level for about a month. He says he’ll bring it up in his Law Enforcement Committee and from
there it will eventually make it to the Board of Commissioners as part
of the budget process. The document that Myers produced, Schor said, is
still a working document. Cutting the Sheriff’s Department down to
eight deputies from 31 is something that will have to be discussed with
Wriggelsworth — the actual numbers might change.

going to flesh out the numbers with the sheriff,” Schor said.

The issue
of paying for sheriff services, Grebner said, could be remedied by a
special assessment. According to an opinion requested by Grebner from
county counsel, an unincorporated township can raise a special
assessment, even without a vote, to pay for police protection. The
difference between a charter township, like Delhi Township, and an
unincorporated township is small. An unincorporated township has less
taxing power and less power in stopping annexation and is not
incorporated under a charter.

According to the legal opinion,
state law allows unincorporated townships to create a special
assessment — not a general levy — to pay for police protection.
According to the opinion, there is no clear law that states that an
unincorporated township has to hold a vote to raise a special
referendum only that it “may.”

The Fear
At one point during the night, Jungel was called on by a Lansing
police officer to pick up a prisoner. Jungel says it’s a frequent
occurrence: a Lansing police officer arrests someone, finds out there’s
a county warrant for that person (most of the time it’s for back child
support) and then a deputy has to come get that prisoner, take him to
jail and then write up a report. It’s a process that takes Jungel about
an hour, from pickup to the finish of his report, and happens sometimes
up to four times a night.

Deputies and Lansing police meet for
prisoner exchange at a place called “the clock tower,” a brick building
at the corner of Collins and Jolly roads that happens to have a clock
on top. When the Lansing officer arrived, she produced a young male who
was wanted for burglary in Ingham County. Jungel and the officer
exchanged banter about the tightness of the prisoner’s handcuffs.

delicate, like a bird,” the Lansing officer told the prisoner.

you like to make a complaint?” Jungel asked the prisoner.

the prisoner was loaded into the car, he was transported to the county
jail. The prisoner surrendered his valuables, removed the laces from
his shoes and sweatshirt and his belt, then Jungel went to a separate
office in the jail to cancel the man’s warrant.

Seated behind
a big wall of Plexiglas near where the low-level offenders who are
allowed work release are kept was Deputy Sheriff Ross Kindervater.
About a month ago, Kindervater voluntarily asked to be transferred from
road patrol to the jail. “I’m the guy that got scared of being laid off
and came back to the jail,” he said.

And that’s not an easy thing for a
road patrol officer. While the deputies at the jail aren’t short on
responsibilities, the difference between the two jobs is that road
patrol officers have gone through the police academy. It’s not a
demotion, but it’s not what a police officer signs up for.

so nervous,” Jungel said.

A re-curring theme with Jungel is the fear of
losing more positions. Jungel says he’s not worried since he’s got 10
years under his belt as a deputy, but in terms of seniority, he’s just
under where cuts would take place.

Then, there’s the fear that
cuts would reduce the amount of services the deputies perform. Jungel,
obviously, identifies as a protector of Ingham County residents. So
what good is a police department if it doesn’t have the personnel to do
police work?

As it is, the deputies, he says, spend a lot of time not
out on the road. The other night, he told me, he spent an entire
12-hour shift, plus one hour on top of that, guarding a prisoner on a
doctor’s visit.

“Some say the townships will come around, but
what about in the meantime?” Jungel said referring to a delay in
townships signing up for a contract with the Sheriff’s Department.

the sheriff’s budget and making townships contract the work was done in
Washtenaw County. Dieter Heren, the police services commander for the
Washtenaw Sheriff’s Department, said that around 1999 the county took
away funding for road patrol. However in 2008 the county received a
$267,912 state grant that allowed it to reconvene road patrol with
three deputies.

In terms of the population of outer Washtenaw,
Heren said, not a large part of the population was affected. But that’s
because a lot of the rural townships and villages signed up to contract
with the Sheriff’s Department. The ones that didn’t just prayed and
relied on the state police.

“Any time a 911 call came into the
dispatch center (from a contracting township) then they would dispatch
the deputies,” Heren said. “But if it was a non-contract area, they
would dispatch state police.”

“Sometimes, if it was an
emergency, they would send an emergency patrol car to the non-contract
area until a state trooper could arrive.”

It seems, at this
point, that there’s the possibility of townships in Ingham County
relying on state police. A group of 12 supervisors have banded together
and hired Christine McKenna of McKenna Associates, a planning and
development consulting firm, to organizes the various governments
against this proposal.

“Never before have they found an issue
so absolutely important that it demanded all their attention,” McKenna
said. She said her firm is organizing the townships to focus their
message. “They don’t have the staffs to handle administrative
and other issues.”

Dallas Henney, the Leslie Townships supervisor, has
become a sort-of leader of the townships opposed to the proposal. He
believes that it’s “dangerous” for the county and disagrees with the
argument that the cities don’t use the Sheriff ’s Department.

in the county pays prop erty taxes,” he said. “The cities decided that
the service the sheriff provided wasn’t adequate to meet their needs,
so they went and raised revenue, but the sheriff still supports those
departments. They rely on the sheriff for backup.”

The only
way a place like Leslie Township could afford to contract with the
Sheriff’s Department is if a millage was raised, which would have to be
voted on by residents.

“Quite frankly, I’d have a hard time
recommending they that when they already pay taxes for this service,”
Henney said.

Ronald Weesies, the Vevay Township supervisor, was able to
affix a number to his township. He said Vevay takes in about $150,000
in taxes per year, plus about $200,000 from state revenue sharing (the
township is losing about $12,000 of that this year), for a total budget
of $350,000. After taking care of cemeteries and streets and
all other township services, Weesies says there wouldn’t be any left
over for police.

“They think we have all this money,” Weesies
said. “But our budget is going to take a bit of a beating. We contract
with the city of Mason for fire protection for $74,000 per year —
that’s one of our biggest expenses right now. We generally allocate
$30,000 for roads, plus a match from the (county) road commission. This
year, we can only do a mile with that amount of money.”

Silsby, the supervisor of Aurelius Township, says that he’s not asking
the city of Lansing to kick in any more for the county jail, even
though there are more people from the city than his township
incarcerated there.

“The thing of it is, we don’t ask for
much, we just ask for minimal service,” Silsby said. “There’s minimal
crime, but there are road accidents. Just the presence of a patrol car
and officer helps.”

The future
Luckily, on Friday night, Jungel didn’t have to respond to any horrific incidents. There
were a lot of idiot drivers (one man, in a gigantic blue pickup truck,
passed Jungel in the left lane speeding — even when the deputy was
following the man, he persisted in speeding, and then gave Jungel a
hard time when he got pulled over) and a few people that just needed to
be checked up on. If he had been closer, Jungel might have caught the
kids who were fighting in Leslie. Another call, which he couldn’t
respond to, was a complaint of a loud house party involving underage

Jungel, however, is certainly up in arms about the
proposal. He’s part of a large Facebook group to save the Ingham County
Sheriff’s Department — lawn signs have already started to pop up. And
there’s a group of local law enforcement officials that think this plan
would hurt officers and the rural residents of Ingham County.

I tried to warn them about was when there’s a reduction of law
enforcement through the rural areas, they open themselves up to
potential threats,” Mason Police Chief John Stressman said he told
commissioners last Tuesday. “It’s a lot of work to run a police
department. To think you can do it with a skeleton crew is stretching

In Ingham County there are two municipalities, Delhi Township (the
Holt area) and the village of Webberville, that contract with the
Sheriff ’s Department for police protection. There are 23 deputies in
Delhi, and Webberville has three. Those officers are counted
as part of the Sheriff’s Department. But, for example, in Webberville,
the officers don’t work weekends, which adds territory to the Sheriff’s
Department road patrol unit during those times.

When asked
what he thinks of the townships’ getting the burden of police services,
Wriggelsworth said he didn’t know if it was the right thing.

don’t think it would be bad if the townships would pay for it,” he
said. “The question is, is this the right thing to do or not — I don’t
know. There are going to be a lot more meetings and some more thought
has to be put into this.”

A previous version of this story misspelled Sheriff Gene Wriggelsworth's name. We regret the error.