- Associated Press - Monday, November 3, 2014

JACKSON, Mich. (AP) - The days of the small-town police force appear to be waning.

In recent years, a handful of Jackson County townships have moved to other police service options, such as contracting with sheriff’s departments, sharing services with neighboring communities or forgoing any extra police presence beyond 911 emergencies.

What remains is a mixed bag. Of the county’s 19 townships, eight maintain their own departments, six contract with the sheriff’s department and the rest rely only on emergency response.

“There’s no true indication of a growing trend, but I do think more folks are looking at the contract approach due to the cost of funding your own department,” said Jim Beelen, liaison of member information services for the Michigan Township Association, a nonprofit that offers support to townships.

High costs have prompted three township police departments to close in recent years, including those in Norvell, Sandstone and Parma townships. Norvell Township, a community of 2,963 people, is mulling offers from other agencies for 24 hours of patrol each week.

Running a department can cost $180,000 and up, while contracting with the sheriff’s department can range from around $5,000 to nearly $500,000, depending on the contract. Having no additional police force costs nothing beyond regular taxes.

“We just have what is provided through tax money,” Henrietta Township Clerk Sally Keane said. “The state and county respond to our emergencies, so we don’t have a fund but just some money put aside just in case.”

There is no right or wrong way for townships to offer law enforcement. They are not required by law to provide additional services beyond what the sheriff or state police offer. But many, Beelen said, are turning toward contracting to save money and have visible patrols, the Jackson Citizen Patriot (https://bit.ly/1DTWAli ) reported.

“I think it’s safe to say that a bigger township with more people is more likely to have their own department or to contract,” he said.

In 2010, Blackman and Leoni, two of the biggest townships in Jackson County, formed a public safety department. Under the agreement, Leoni Township pays Blackman Township $774,000 of the $3 million-plus police budget in 2014.

“The biggest benefit is doubling the amount of officers working at any time,” Public Safety Director Mike Jester said at the time of the merger. “For residents, this means the response time will be shorter because there will always be five to seven cars on patrol between the two townships.”

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Norvell Township is ready to pay about $50,000 annually for police protection out of its annual $325,000 general fund. The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, Columbia and Cambridge police departments have all bid for the contract. The township is expected to make a decision in a few weeks.

Six years after shuttering its police department, Supervisor Eric Johnson said resident complaints about response times have pushed him to explore the township’s options.

Ray Mendenhall works at the Jugheads convenience store in Norvell, and said he hasn’t had any issues with response times when he’s needed assistance.

“Even without our own department or a contract, I’ve still noticed a typical police presence out here,” he said. “There were a couple of times where I had to call, but either the state or county deputies got here really quickly.

“It never hurts to have more police around, especially when you work here.”

Norvell spent $180,000 each year when it had its own department. Contracting for police services would be significantly lower, but still address residents’ concerns, Johnson said.

“No one was calling for us to bring our department back,” Johnson said. “The idea with this contract is to actually put someone out here to try, and cut down on issues with response time.”

Since closing down, Norvell has depended solely on emergency response from the Michigan State Police and Jackson County sheriff’s deputies.

While relying on emergency services in Norvell, there have been 28 arrests and 90 incident calls in the township in 2013. When the township had its own department there were 17 arrests and 170 incidents, according to MSP statistics.

All five townships that contract for police service do so with the county sheriff, which allows each to designate as much patrol as needed.

Jackson County Deputy Dan Deering has been assigned to Parma Township since 2010, and works a flexible weekly schedule of 40 hours a week.

“I’m extremely familiar with the area, and the residents, kids and businesses are familiar and comfortable with me,” he said. “I’m recognized by the people even when I’m off-duty and in street clothes; it’s way easier to talk to people who are comfortable in your presence.

“Being a contracted deputy is much more of a thankful job because it’s a much more personal relationship with the community.”

Parma Township Supervisor Wendy Chamberlain said having a specific officer in town puts a face and personality to law enforcement.

Contracts with the sheriff’s office vary. And essentially, you get what you pay for.

Rives Township has a unique contract during the summer for four hours on Friday and Saturday nights, which costs $4,860 annually. Summit Township pays close to $500,000 each year and gets four deputies and a sergeant full time.

In areas with no paid police presence, the county and state police respond to emergency responses only when contacted. The sheriff’s office does patrol the entire county, however the focus has traditionally been to target unincorporated areas, Jackson County Sheriff Steve Rand said.

“We do have some advantages as it pertains to economies of scale; additional administration, transcription, evidence management and ancillary costs would be absorbed by this office,” Rand said.

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Sharing services is another cost-saving option for departments that want routine, but can’t shell out a lot of cash.

Columbia Township offers its full-time police services to surrounding municipalities by making the village of Brooklyn and Cement City part of its daily patrol.

Grass Lake Township pays the village of Grass Lake overtime to borrow the village’s deputy at an on-needed basis.

“We don’t have any deputies on official business with crime or traffic patrols,” Grass Lake Township Supervisor Jim Stormont said. “It’s usually just to help us enforce our ordinance when we need the deputy the village hired though the sheriff’s office.

“The state police and county come through every once and a while, and they’re always looking, so it seems as if someone is always out here.”

Until Oct. 20, the Concord Police Department was a joint venture with the village of Concord paying 60 percent of costs and Concord Township responsible for 40 percent. The department’s budget was $141,000 in 2013, with the village paying more than $82,000 and the township handling the rest.

Concord Township Supervisor Jamie Ley said there can be issues with having a minority share in a department. In Concord’s case, the township had far less say in the village-run department, which split after the village fired its police chief Oct. 14.

“The best option for the township was to break away from the village and to start with a clean slate,” said Ley, following a township council vote to start its own department with one officer. “(We) thought we made some ground on improving our relationship with the village, but they stomped over us like we didn’t exist.”

While the relationship between the village and township in Concord is crumbling, Columbia Township maintains a healthy working relationship with its neighbors.

The police budget in Columbia Township is about $450,000 each year, with only 10 percent of that coming from the township’s general fund, Elwell said.

“Our community is hugely supportive,” he said. “They have made it clear they want us here, and they have continually supported our department through millages.”

Columbia Township brings in about $30,000 a year in contracts, between the $8,000 annually from Brooklyn and $22,800 a year from the village of Cement City.

Elwell, who also is a Jackson County Commissioner, said the township took an “out of the box” approach to the Cement City contract, by incorporating them into regular patrol because of the village’s proximity.

“Our department handles nearly all of the calls for service there, and it works well them and for us, which is easier than them trying to dedicate an officer there in a square-mile area for a period of time.”

Besides the chief, Columbia Township has five full-time officers, a part-time secretary who also is a sworn officer, and a few part-time officers.

The Columbia Township Police Department is a rare breed for its size in Jackson County as the agency continues to seek additional responsibilities.

“Our residents have spoken their support of the agency,” Elwell said. “While some talk about eliminating local forces and having the sheriff or State Police handle all police services, I have the philosophy that the government that is closest to the people is best.”

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Information from: Jackson Citizen Patriot, https://www.mlive.com/jackson

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