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State regulators rule in favor of Ashland County in law enforcement dispute with Lake Superior island town

Department of Revenue says Ashland County didn't transfer responsibility for law enforcement services when it ended an agreement to share policing costs

The Ashland County Law Enforcement Center 
The Ashland County Law Enforcement Center. Danielle Kaeding/WPR

State regulators say Ashland County didn’t transfer responsibility for law enforcement services to a Lake Superior island town when it ended a long-standing agreement to share policing costs.

The findings are in response to a petition filed with the Wisconsin Department of Revenue by the town of La Pointe on Madeline Island earlier this year. Leaders of the Lake Superior island community argued Ashland County transferred responsibility for law enforcement services to the town, calling for changes to their levy limits. The town petitioned the agency to reduce the county’s levy limit and increase the town’s allowable levy by more than $190,000 to pay for patrol and response.

The town is home to around 430 people year-round, but Madeline Island is a tourist hub that draws several thousand people during the summer. The island previously maintained its police force with help from funds contributed by the mainland county’s sheriff’s department. That helped the island town pay for 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, which meant a loss of $135,000 for the island community.

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“To the extent any transfer of responsibility occurred, that transfer was one of funds, not services,” the July 19 ruling states.

The ruling went on to say that even if the county was purchasing law enforcement services under an agreement with the town — as the town suggests — the “purchase of the services is not the provision of the service.”

Michael Kuchta, the town’s administrator, said the ruling is disappointing.

“For the DOR to say that paying for the service is not the same as providing a service, to me, it’s just disconnected from reality,” Kuchta said.

La Pointe Police Department squad car
A squad car used by the La Pointe Police Department on Madeline Island, which is trying to sort out how to maintain police service. Photo courtesy of La Pointe Police Department

Ashland County Administrator Dan Grady said the county is pleased with the decision.

“Our position all along is the sheriff never abdicated his responsibility to provide law enforcement to the town. The sheriff can’t,” Grady said. “Under the (Wisconsin) Constitution, he provides law enforcement everywhere in the county.”

Even so, Kuchta argued the county isn’t providing patrol and response, saying the county relies on the La Pointe Police Department.

“So what they say they are doing and what they actually are doing are two different things,” Kuchta said.

Despite that, Kuchta acknowledged the sheriff’s office has provided assistance on a couple events, as well as backup in at least one incident on the island this year.

The town has argued other communities on the mainland like the city of Mellen get more service from the Ashland County Sheriff’s Office in a day than the town receives all year. Kuchta provided figures that show the county has responded to a dozen calls since 2019, including the first quarter of this year. In comparison, the town’s figures show the county responded to 1,265 calls in the city of Mellen during the same period.

The county has argued the fact that the sheriff’s office handles more calls in Mellen does not demonstrate that the town isn’t receiving the same services, according to a brief filed with the state. The county highlighted the city doesn’t have a full-time police force unlike the town. The sheriff’s office also handles more serious calls in Mellen, such as domestic disputes or burglaries. In contrast, the county said the town deals more with noise complaints or traffic stops.

The sheriff has maintained there would be no need to respond to more than a relatively low number of calls because of the town’s around-the-clock police force.

“The fact that La Pointe has its own police department means that they will handle a majority of the calls there,” Grady said.

Kuchta said the loss of funding from Ashland County has put a hole in the town’s budget for law enforcement, which he said is roughly $400,000.

“We are trying to figure out how to solve that problem (and) maintain a 24/7 police presence on the island without further burdening the taxpayers in La Pointe,” Kuchta said.

Madeline Island
Big Bay State Park on Madeline Island. P. Ignatious CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The community has been able to fund patrol and response by using funds leftover at the end of last year, but Kuchta said that’s not a sustainable solution. He added the town’s police force is currently down two part-time officers. Kuchta said the town board will review its options in a meeting on Tuesday.

Ashland County ended its law enforcement agreement with the town last year due to its own financial struggles.

“We simply just didn’t have the money to keep up with inflation and the needs of all our departments,” Grady said.

Ashland County’s administrator said funding previously allocated to the town was used to provide wage increases for corrections officers at the county jail amid labor shortages. The county is also experiencing staffing challenges with its deputies. Grady said the county typically has about a dozen officers, but the office is down three positions due to retirements.

Some members of the Ashland County board have supported payments to the town, voicing concerns about the ability of sheriff’s deputies to provide a swift response. They highlighted challenges with the distance and securing a ferry ride to the island. Even so, Grady countered that Ashland County is large geographically. He argued it would take the same amount of time to respond to a call on the island as it would to respond to a call in the southeastern part of the county.

La Pointe officials have the right to request another hearing from the Department of Revenue within 20 days of the ruling. It could also petition the Wisconsin Tax Appeals Commission to review the ruling within 60 days of the decision.

In addition, the town previously filed a notice of claim with the county, which is submitted prior to filing any lawsuit against a government agency. Ashland County’s board denied the claim in June, and the town must decide whether to pursue a lawsuit over the policing dispute.