Lake patrol costs pass to Oakland homeowners

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Waterford Township — When a boat capsized recently on Cass Lake and homeowners rushed to help the victims, one rescuer wondered why there wasn’t a sheriff’s marine boat on scene.

“We pay thousands of dollars in taxes; shouldn’t there be one (sheriff’s) boat out here in case something like this happens?” asked a frustrated Sam Yono, whose family took to a pontoon boat and personal watercraft Aug. 2 to aid the boaters.

“I’ve been on this lake for 25 years and think we deserve better service than this.”

The budget for the sheriff’s marine division peaked in 2008 at $1.6 million. But county-funded marine patrols were discontinued in Oakland County, including on Cass Lake, five years ago as the department absorbed layoffs and cutbacks among $20 million in budget cuts — including $1.2 million to its marine division, Sheriff Michael Bouchard said.

Now, the only marine patrols by the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office are conducted on 17 lakes, paid for under contract by homeowner associations or municipalities.

Cass Lake, surrounded by several communities, is not among them. Dan Krause, vice president of the Cass Lakeside Community Association, said the board of directors briefly considered contracting for patrols, but decided the cost would outweigh the benefits.

“Keego Harbor has a patrol boat that will go out into the lake but doesn’t patrol the whole lake,” said Krause, who has been involved in the homeowners group for seven years. “We looked into contracting a patrol, and it was around $40 an hour, which seemed pretty steep. But if we had several associations all contributing, it might be something to consider.”

Krause said there have been occasional accidents on the lake but “for the most part it has been pretty safe.”

In the years since the Sheriff’s Office halted county-funded lake patrols, boating accidents and fatalities have been trending downward in Michigan. The state had 107 accidents and 20 deaths last year, down from 131 accidents and 28 deaths in 2010, according to the state Department of Natural Resources and the Michigan Boating Industries Association.

Boat accidents and deaths on Oakland County waterways are rare, according to the sheriff’s marine division. In the past five years, the county has recorded three fatal boat accidents — one each in 2010, 2011 and 2013.

In Oakland County, the sheriff’s marine patrol and dive team still respond to emergencies on all county waterways, including missing boaters and swimmers. They also assist with searches outside the county, such as the effort this month to find the body of Southfield Fire Chief Keith Rowley, who drowned in Lake St. Clair.

“We have 450 navigable lakes in the county,” said Bouchard, who oversees a $140 million budget and 1,200 employees for law enforcement countywide, including the jail. “There is no way I can put a deputy on every one of those lakes. The dollars are just not there to do it.”

Bouchard said $1.2 million was cut from the marine division budget, and he gets less than $100,000 from the state from boating registration fees, even though Oakland County has more registered boaters than any other county in the state.

“We get back about 25 cents on the dollar of what is paid in registration fees,” Bouchard said. “If we got just half, I could double our efforts.”

The Macomb County Sheriff’s Office also has a marine patrol that focuses mainly on the 85 square miles of Lake St. Clair that’s in the county. Sgt. Frank Bednard said the patrol has four full-time law enforcement officers and more than 80 volunteers who offer emergency help 24/7.

The marine unit also patrols Stony Creek Lake at Stony Creek Metropark in Shelby Township and along the international border with Canada, Bednard said.

Wayne County has five full-time marine officers who patrol the county’s lakes year-round, including parts of Lake Erie and Belleville Lake, said sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Wasil.

In Oakland County, residents who live along the lakes can contract for marine patrols by the sheriff’s office.

Those residents are paying for marine patrols at these lakes: Cedar, Commerce, Deer, Duck, Elizabeth, Lakeville, Lower Straits, Orchard, Orion, Pine, Sherwood, Sylvan, Voorheis, Walled, Walnut, White and Williams.

The hourly cost is $31.87, which includes one deputy and one boat. Half of the lakes seeking contracts provide a list of times they want a deputy on the water. That’s usually on weekend afternoons when boat traffic reaches its peak, but occasionally on a weekday to surprise violators.

“Contracted patrols is probably the only fair way to do it,” Bouchard said. “Why should someone in Hazel Park be responsible for marine patrols in the northern part of the county?”

Once a contract is approved by a lake homeowner’s association, its members pay the township or city, which then pays the county.

Marine division records indicate deputies have made hundreds of contacts with boaters this summer, issuing warnings and tickets for boating operation, alcohol and equipment violations.

(248) 338-0319

Staff writer Kyla Smith contributed.