Sheriff’s Department under contract to patrol just 13 lakes this summer
Once again, boaters and riparians on most west Oakland County lakes will not be seeing the presence of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) Marine Division this summer
The exceptions to that budget casualty are the 13 lake communities that decided to contract with the Marine Division for 2012 patrols.
Due to budget constraints and the economic decline, the Marine Division no longer had the funds to keep patrol boats stationed for the summer at specific lakes after the 2009 boating season. Before facing the cuts, it regularly patrolled more than two dozen county lakes throughout the boating season, free of charge.
“We had to cut over $1 million from the marine patrol budget,” said Undersheriff Mike McCabe.
For the past couple years, municipalities had to enter into contracts with the OCSD if they wanted its Marine Division to patrol their lakes.
“We call them ‘mini-contracts,’” said Marine Division Sergeant Patrick Hatfield last year.
This year, the Sheriff’s Department is charging an increase of 19 cents per hour for marine patrol services. Last year, the Marine Division charged $31.18 per hour of marine patrols, while this year patrols will cost $31.37 per hour. The overtime rate for a deputy with a boat is $40.69 per hour. Those rates cover the cost of the boat, gas, maintenance, and the deputy’s wages.
Services of a Marine Division deputy without a boat cost $20.38 per hour, while the overtime rate for a marine deputy without a boat is $29.70.
The Sheriff’s Department enters into a contract with the local governing bodies, which in turn enter into contracts with the lake or subdivision associations that want the marine patrols on their lakes.
Highland Township Supervisor Triscia Pilchowski explained that individual lake improvement boards and lakes associations can’t enter into a contract with the county Sheriff’s Department individually. Instead, each unit must go through the local governing body.
Both Highland Township and White Lake Township had to contract with the Sheriff’s Department for Marine Division patrols on White Lake since it’s located in both townships.
The funds paying for marine patrols on White Lake come from a special assessment district (SAD), with the assessments collected through White Lake’s lake improvement board. The SAD is a funding source requested by the White Lake Citizen’s League for the past three years.
Commerce Township Clerk Dan Munro explained how the contracts are settled.
“Generally, we enter into an agreement with the OCSD to provide services,” he said. “At that point, there are individual agreements between the township and the lakes associations to enter into individual agreements that comply to the overall agreement with the OCSD. The ones paying for the contract are the subdivision associations that have requested (marine patrols).”
According to McCabe, at press time the Sheriff’s Department expects to have contracts for 2012 patrols on 13 different lakes located within seven different townships and one city.
These contracts appeared before the Oakland County Board of Commissioners for approval on March 22.
Addison, Commerce, Highland, Orion, West Bloomfield, White Lake, Waterford and Independence townships, as well as the city of Orchard Lake Village, have all requested to enter into contracts with the department for marine patrols during the upcoming summer.
Lakeville Lake, Lower Straits Lake, Lake Sherwood, Commerce Lake, Long Lake, White Lake, Deer Lake, Orchard Lake, Lake Orion, Voorheis Lake, Williams Lake, Pine Lake, and Walnut Lake are the bodies of water that will receive Marine Division patrols this summer.
Commerce, Highland, Waterford and White Lake townships requested one part-time deputy for 250 hours for the duration of the contract, while Orchard Lake asked for a part-time deputy for 240 hours under its contract.
West Bloomfield has requested two part-time marine deputies for 1,700 hours.
With the exception of Orchard Lake’s, all of these contracts take effect Monday, May 21. Orchard Lake’s went into effect Tuesday, May 1.
Some of these lakes’ residents feel safer and more content with marine patrols on the lake, such as those living on Orchard Lake.
However, according to Orchard Lake Shore Association President Pete Russ, they may request fewer patrol hours this year.
“We coordinate with the police on scheduling. That’s what we’ve done for the last three years,” Russ said. “The hours will be considerably less than previous years. The traffic on the lake has been low over the last 5 to 6 years. We’ve cut back and have what we feel is adequate protection for the hours that are fairly busy on the lake.”
Orchard Lake Shore Association members pay for weed harvesting, marine patrols, goose round up and nest destruction through a SAD.
Meanwhile, other lake associations and subdivisions have opted out of contracting for marine patrols.
Some municipalities may choose to take the path Walled Lake did two years ago and have their own city police patrol the local waters, with the department’s one patrol boat they acquired in 2009.
According to Walled Lake Police Chief Paul Shakinas, the department has have someone patrolling on the weekends and on the holidays, normally from noon to 8 p.m.
Shakinas said all the department’s officers have been trained on the boat.
“There’s a 24/7 response,” he said. “If anything happens on the lake, we can be on the water in five minutes. We’re happy to have our patrol boat, and we’ve pretty much filled in the hole left by the lack of (Oakland County Sheriff’s Department) marine patrols. The residents are pretty much content. We’ve had very little problems.”
The Village of Wolverine Lake also has opted to handle marine patrols itself instead of contracting with the Sheriff’s Department this year.
In 2010, the Wolverine Lake Village Council agreed to contract with the Marine Division to patrol the village’s namesake on weekends and holidays between Memorial Day and Labor Day. However, in 2011 and again this year, the service will be placed in the hands of Wolverine Lake police officers.
“We tried it in 2010 and it reverted back in 2011 using our personnel,” said Captain John Ellsworth, the police department’s acting chief. “There are no bad feelings. We tried it once and wanted control back in the hands of Wolverine officers.”
The village’s two marine officers are specifically trained and hired on a seasonal basis.
They will be patrolling on weekends and holidays, and conducting random patrols throughout the week as determined by various factors like weather, activity, and complaints. Back-up is available when necessary.
“All our other officers are trained and can respond if needed,” Ellsworth said.
Other lakes may simply decide to not do anything, and leave it up to their citizens to adhere to water safety rules.
Cass Lake has a little bit of both worlds, according to Christopher Letts, the vice president of the Cass Lakeside Community Association.
As the largest lake in Oakland County, Cass Lake is situated in four different communities: West Bloomfield and Waterford townships, Orchard Lake Village, and the city of Keego Harbor.
It also has one of the largest sandbars in the area, which is a popular congregating spot for lake users.
“It’s very neat how the sand bar is set up,” Letts said. “You have the younger people who like to party and hang out. Then you have another section that is more family-oriented. And then you have the older residents who also just like to hang out.”
A lot of the congestion on Cass Lake can therefore be found in the sand bar area, which runs along the entire Keego Harbor side, which just so happens to have it’s own police department that also conducts marine patrols.
“We have Keego Harbor officers that help control that part of the lake,” Letts said. “In my personal opinion, the Keego Harbor Police Department does a great job and is respected by everyone there.”
He also said that there is an element of “self-policing” between boats on the lake.
“If there are people going through the sand bar too quickly, especially near the area with families, those people get addressed by the boaters anchored around the area,” Letts said. “While more police presence isn’t a terrible thing, the lake does a good job controlling itself. It’s part of the boating culture. Occasionally, you get guys that aren’t being considerate to the people around them. But with the boating culture, there is accountability. You can find yourself being ostracized quickly by those who have been on the lake for years if you aren’t respecting your fellow boaters. There is a culture of accountability. If there is a problem, people find out and it’s worked out.”
Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Department will still continue to patrol and offer marine assistance during emergencies on all county lakes. However, that’s a more reactive approach.
“We have two jump boats that can respond to calls for service on lakes in the county,” McCabe said. “For example, one boat may be on Lower Straits Lake in Commerce Township and a call from Cass Lake comes in and the deputy will then take the boat on the trailer (to Cass Lake). They can respond to where they need to go from where they happen to be.”
The Marine Division continues to maintain and operate its 12-member dive and rescue team, while still offering courses in boater, snowmobile, and hunter safety to train and educate the public.
Each of the division’s two jump boats will have two deputies and will most likely be out and about during peak boating traffic periods, such as Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. One group of deputies will patrol from about 1 to 6 p.m., while another will take over from 6 to around 11 p.m.
Meanwhile, it looks like these “mini-contracts” for marine patrols may be the new normal. McCabe said he doesn’t foresee returning to non-contract patrols around many of the lakes in Oakland County for quite some time.
“Maybe many years (they’ll return) down the road after we turn around economically,” he said. “The Oakland County Board of Commissioners (has) to restore them, and I don’t think they are in the position to do so in the foreseeable future as of now.”
Despite the decrease in patrols on the lakes, there has not been an increase in complaints, according to McCabe.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “Actually, last year was one of the safest years we’ve had on the lakes.”
For more information about contracting with the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department for marine patrols, call the department’s non-emergency number at 248-858-4911.