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Rural Michigan sheriffs fear layoffs after Whitmer vetoes road patrol

LANSING – Rural sheriffs are warning of layoffs after Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vetoed funding for county road patrol deputies that the state has provided for more than four decades. 

The first-term Democrat axed $13 million earmarked for the secondary road patrol program as part of a line-item veto spree designed to restart budget negotiations with the Republican-led Legislature without forcing a state government shutdown. 

Absent a deal, the cut could cost Chippewa County two of its eight road patrol deputies – one quarter of the field team, Sheriff Michael Bitnar wrote on a social media message urging local residents to contact Whitmer and urge reconsideration. 

"I do not like the safety of our citizens being part of Lansing's politics," he said in a statement.

The patrol program, created in 1978, provides grants for county sheriffs to hire deputies focused on patrolling county and local roads outside city and village limits. The deputies are authorized to enforce traffic laws and other statutes, investigate crashes and assist in emergencies.

Chippewa County qualified for $58,598 in 2018 to help pay part of the salaries of two patrol deputies, according to state records.  Bitnar said he now has four deputies who work night shifts and four who work days. At times, he has only one deputy on the clock to patrol 292,182 miles of county roads. 

"I am not comfortable trying to keep all of you safe with only six deputy sheriffs," Bitnar told residents. "To be perfectly clear, I am well understaffed now."

Bitnar did not respond to a message Thursday from Bridge Magazine seeking comment.

Michigan has traditionally withheld the grants from communities that cut their own local road patrol funding levels, a requirement to ensure the state money is used to supplement, rather than replace, county resources. But lawmakers waived that provision for 2018, citing economic hardships for local governments. 

The state awarded $8.3 million in grants that year. The secondary road patrol program funded 119 of the 2,447 road patrol deputies in the state, roughly 5 percent. Counties funded the other 2,328 themselves, according to the most recent program report from the Office of Highway Safety Planning.

The state-funded deputies made 83,581 vehicle stops, 50,702 traffic citations, 5,664 criminal arrests and assisted other officers 18,825 times.  They investigated 12,618 crashes, including 8,586 on secondary roads, 3,593 on state trunkline highways and 439 in villages and cities. 

Because of the large population it serves and size of its department, the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office got the biggest share of funding in 2018, a total of $1.2 million that supported 11 road patrol deputies. 

But rural sheriffs contend the grants are a more critical part of their operations. The Upper Peninsula’s Houghton County, with 131,363 local road miles, uses the money to support two of its 10 deputies, according to Sheriff Brian McLean. 

State aid had already dropped after peaking at $13.9 million in 2015 and no longer covers the entire salary of those two deputies, but it pays "a major portion," McLean told Bridge Magazine.

"We all took a big hit back in 2008, when everything went south on us with the economy," he said. "We didn't recover 100 percent, but we still do get funding, and (the potential loss) is of grave concern to us."

"If push comes to shove, we'd have to" try to find a way to pay the deputies with local funding, "but that would mean cuts elsewhere in county government," McLean said.

Michigan's new fiscal year began Tuesday, but many smaller counties do not start their 2020 budget year until Jan. 1.

That means areas such as Kalkaska County will have three months to wait out the budget dispute before officials will be forced to make tough staffing decisions, said Sheriff Partrick Whiteford, who employs one state-funded secondary road patrol officer. 

If Whitmer and lawmakers don't strike a deal to restore the funding by the end of the year, Kalkaska County would either need to find a way to make up the shortfall or "I would have to eliminate the position," he said. 

That would amount to a 10 percent reduction in Kalkaska’s 10-deputy road patrol unit. Whiteford said his nine other deputies are primarily focused on responding to complaints, including breaking-and-entering crimes. 

"We get a lot of those up here," he said. "So really, as far as traffic enforcement, I rely almost solely on my (secondary road patrol) car."

Kalkaska County gets heavy traffic on US-131, M-72 and M-66, "but we have a lot of side and secondary roads that, with the minimal amount of deputies I have, don't get a lot of attention and would get less if we don't have that SRP officer," Whiteford added. 

Whitmer had earmarked $11 million for the secondary road program in her own budget proposal, which she unveiled in March. The Legislature voted to increase that by $2 million, but Whitmer vetoed the entire line item as part of the ongoing budget dispute.  She also rejected $654,500 in related training grants for local law enforcement agencies. 

The governor has made clear she is open to reversing some of those vetoes  if Republican leaders start new negotiations following a contentious budget process she capped by rejecting nearly  $1 billion in planned spending and using a rare power to shift $625 million within departments. 

It’s unclear when or if the state will be able to award secondary road patrol grants this year. 

“At this point, it’s hard to determine based on the negotiations taking place between the governor, with the line-item vetoes, and the Legislature,” said Kari Arend, a spokeswoman for the Office of Highway Safety Planning.

Talks between Whitmer and GOP leaders broke down in early September, three weeks before the constitutional deadline to complete a budget or partially shutdown state government. 

The Legislature ended up approving budgets without the governor's input. She signed the resulting bills but called them a "mess," arguing the budget was built on faulty assumptions that would jeopardize programs in the Michigan Department of Corrections and other areas. 

Whitmer's line-item vetoes cut several top GOP priorities, including a charter school funding increase, and appeared to target programs in rural areas typically represented Republicans. 

"I'm not out to punish anybody," she said Wednesday. "I'm out to make sure that we protect the public safety, public health and the public welfare of the people in our state. And I have been, and remain, ready to negotiate to do that."

Whitmer has identified her priorities for a potential supplemental spending bill, but Republicans frustrated by her aggressive use of executive power have said they are in no hurry to resume budget negotiations. 

“There’s a lot of things in those line-item vetoes that the citizens of the state of Michigan are desperately waiting for a correction on,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said Wednesday.

“And if the governor, if my governor, thinks that she made a mistake with a red pen, she can let us know which ones she’d like to have back so we can reinstate them.”

Sheriff's departments across the state have already submitted annual applications for secondary road patrol grants and are waiting to see how the budget drama plays out before their own new fiscal years begin. 

"Our argument is public safety -- [the program is] good for everyone," McLean, the Houghton County sheriff.

“But there's no sense getting too excited or storming the Bastille with pitchforks and torches. Let's negotiate a bit here and see what happens."

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