A Lake Superior island town fears it may no longer be able to provide around-the-clock law enforcement services after Ashland County nixed an agreement to share policing costs.
The town of La Pointe on Madeline Island is home to around 430 people year-round, but the Lake Superior island community is a bustling tourist destination that draws several thousand people during the summer.
In the past, the island maintained its police force through the help of funding from the mainland county's sheriff's department. That helped the island community have emergency services, and kept the sheriff's department from having to respond to routine calls across the water. But last year, Ashland County announced they were withdrawing from the deal.
Now, the town’s administrator Michael Kuchta worries police may not be available to respond when there's an emergency on the island. He said the community is faced with raising funds or cutting hours to maintain service after Ashland County notified the town last year that it would no longer provide $135,000 to the island community for law enforcement services and response. The county had agreed to pay the town to "help defray law enforcement costs" for almost three decades.
"When we get to the summer point, and we have more tourism and the bars are open, people can just imagine what the challenge is going to be if we can't afford a full-time police department," Kuchta said.
Now, the town has filed a claim against the county and a petition with the Wisconsin Department of Revenue. The island community wants the agency to reduce Ashland County’s levy limit and increase the town’s allowable levy by more than $190,000 to pay for law enforcement services.
Kuchta claims the county was indirectly providing services by purchasing them from the town. In its petition, the town claims the county is not directly offering law enforcement patrol or response in line with services provided elsewhere in the county.
Ashland County administrator Dan Grady and Ashland County Sheriff Brian Zupke referred questions about the petition to the county’s attorney. In a statement, Attorney Jake Curtis with Milwaukee law firm Attolles Law said the county is aware of the petition and will respond accordingly.
"The Sheriff will continue to meet his Constitutional and statutory obligations by providing law enforcement coverage within Ashland County," Curtis wrote.
A spokesperson with the Wisconsin Department of Revenue said the agency may deny the petition, issue a ruling, or schedule a hearing on the matter. The department is reviewing the petition and will issue a decision within 30 days of its filing.
Dispute stems from lack of staff, resources
Ashland County notified the town of its intention to end the law enforcement agreement last year. The county said it would use the money to pay for wage increases for corrections officers at the county jail as it’s struggled to hire staff.
The La Pointe police department has two full-time officers along with two part-time staff and two seasonal officers during the summer. Officers responded to 1,211 incidents last year, according to figures provided by the town.
Without an agreement, Kuchta said the town has been working with the sheriff on providing services, which includes storing a squad car on the island. He said the sheriff opposes eliminating the agreement. The town noted in its Jan. 10 claim that the sheriff indicated it doesn’t have enough resources to provide adequate law enforcement to the town. The Ashland County Sheriff’s Office divides the county into three geographic regions and typically assigns one deputy per shift to each area.
Sheriff Zupke told WDIO-TV that a couple of deputies would be needed to adequately cover La Pointe.
Kuchta said the county showed no willingness to negotiate with the town on law enforcement services prior to ending its decades-long agreement.
Some county leaders at odds over law enforcement deal
In November, the county board voted 13 to 6 to reject a proposal that would have provided $70,000 to the town through contingency funds. During the November meeting, Ashland County Board Supervisor Matt MacKenzie supported some payment to the town to maintain coverage. He questioned whether deputies could swiftly respond to a domestic violence call in the middle of the night on the island.
"You're going to have to send a deputy out there and not just one, but two. And, you're going to have to have a special ferry," MacKenzie said. "This costs money, and we're going to end up paying for it."
In the same meeting, Ashland County Board Supervisor Pat Kinney countered that the county has a $1.3 million budget deficit that it needs to address, adding residents have been reluctant to raise taxes to maintain services. State restrictions on levy limits have also tied the county's hands on how much it can raise through net new construction, which increased less than one percent last year for Ashland County. Kinney noted the county has been paying for one full-time officer, half the wages of three part-time officers and half the maintenance costs of a squad car for the town.
"This agreement hasn't been working because we’ve run our fund balance down, and we have not kept up with raises for our employees, plus all the other challenges that we have," Kinney said.
Ashland County is not the only county in Wisconsin that has reached a law enforcement agreement with an island town. Door County Administrator Ken Pabich said the county pays the town of Washington Island around $105,000 for law enforcement services. The population for the town of 718 year-round residents more than doubles during the summer months. Figures provided by Door County Emergency Management show Washington Island had a total of 328 calls last year, most of which were for law enforcement and emergency services.
Pabich said the county pays for one of two town officers, vehicle maintenance, and training.
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"Knock on wood, we've been able to maintain the service cooperatively between both, and provide the level of service that we think is adequate for the permanent residents, the seasonal residents, and obviously the visitors that go there," Pabich said.
In the meantime, La Pointe’s administrator Michael Kuchta said it’s up to the Department of Revenue to decide whether the town’s petition has merit.
"We have to find a way to pay for the service that we've been providing for years," Kuchta said. "We need to keep our community safe. That's the bottom line."
Editor's note: This story has been updated with the most recent Census data from the Wisconsin Demographic Services Center for the population of the town of La Pointe.