DCCSC weighs state plan to take over sheriff departments, though bill has stalled
Last week the Dukes County Charter Study Commission (DCCSC) discussed the proposed takeover by the state of the County Sheriff's Department. A bill attached to Governor Duval Patrick's proposed FY09 budget would transfer the county sheriffs' departments in seven counties to the state, effective July 1 of this year. The bill reads: "All functions, duties, responsibilities, property and employees of sheriffs in [seven counties] are hereby transferred to the commonwealth under this chapter, as if the governments of those counties had been abolished...."
Sheriff Michael McCormack and county treasurer and acting county manager Noreen Mavro Flanders met with the DCCSC last week and outlined their positions on the proposal. Ms. Flanders is opposed to the bill, chiefly because the state would not take over the unfunded liability for the sheriff's employees' retirement benefits. Under some scenarios, she says, the bill could cost the towns more than they are paying now.
Mr. McCormack is more neutral on the proposal. He agrees with the intent of the bill, which is to fix the way sheriff departments are funded, a process he thinks is not working. Sheriffs do not find out what their budgets will be until at least a quarter of the way into the fiscal year, and then the funds are always insufficient to complete the year, requiring a supplemental appropriation. The following year's budget is based on the original (insufficient) appropriation, so that the sheriffs are always running behind, handicapped in their ability to make plans and contracts for ensuing years. However, Mr. McCormack is less sure that the particular solution proposed by the governor is the right one.
At their meeting last week, the DCCSC voted to draft a letter to the legislature opposing the takeover. A vote on the letter will be taken at tonight's DCCSC meeting.
Under chapter 34A of the Massachusetts General Laws, the DCCSC may recommend to the voters only a form of government (it has tentatively chosen the "board chairman" form), the number of commissioners (seven), the length of their terms (four years), and the way they are to be elected (at large). The recommendation that will appear on the ballot in November will contain only those four particulars. Many on the DCCSC feel that the county commissioners' policies, rather than the particular form of county government, are responsible for the public's lack of confidence in county government. This month the DCCSC has been discussing recommendations which will be made to the county commissioners for an administrative code.
At their meeting on March 13, the DCCSC made preliminary decisions on three recommendations, concerning the County Advisory Board, a Municipal Advisory Council, and appointments made by the county commissioners. Whether or not the voters in November accept a new form of county government, the present and future commissioners may adopt such recommendations in whole, in part, or not at all.
The County Advisory Board (CAB) is made up of one selectman from each town and approves all county budgets. It has the power to protect the taxpayers of the towns from county spending excesses, a power it has not always exercised, in the opinion of many on the DCCSC. At their meeting on February 28, the DCCSC determined that Chapter 34A of the Massachusetts General Laws gives them no authority to strengthen or stimulate the CAB, which is governed by its own section of the laws, Chapter 35. Changing Chapter 35 would require a lengthy legislative process with little guarantee of success. However, the DCCSC does have the power to recommend to the county commissioners that they make greater use of the CAB.
Accordingly, the DCCSC on March 13 voted to recommend that the county commissioners meet with the CAB from the very beginning of the budgeting process each year, and regularly consult the CAB in setting county objectives and agendas. For the first time in recent memory, this practice is now in use by the current county commission, and the DCCSC will urge the commissioners to make it a permanent part of the county administrative code.
By statute, in financial matters the members of the CAB have a weighted vote. Each town's vote on the CAB is proportional to its share of the county budget. In non-financial matters, the DCCSC suggests that CAB recommendations be informal and by consensus, rather than by a weighted vote.
Some members of the DCCSC wanted to recommend that the commissioners also consult the CAB on county appointments and performance reviews, which is not current practice. However, the DCCSC voted not to make those recommendations.
The municipal advisory council
At the March 13 meeting, the DCCSC also considered recommending that the county appoint a Municipal Advisory Council (MAC) as permitted under Chapter 34A. Although several suggestions for MAC membership had been presented at the February 28 meeting, the DCCSC last week voted not to recommend that the county commissioners create a formal MAC. Instead, the DCCSC will urge the county commissioners to adopt as part of the administrative code frequent and regular consultation with existing Island resources, such as the All-Island Selectmen, the association of town administrators, various regional organizations, and ad hoc committees called together to address a particular regional problem, issue, or suggestion.
At the end of that meeting, the DCCSC turned its attention to appointments to other bodies made by the county commissioners: the airport commission, Steamship Authority, county retirement board, housing authority, health council, and others. Self-appointments by the county commissioners have been a source of some of the present dissatisfaction with the county. The DCCSC considered recommending that county commissioners never appoint themselves to any other agency, but voted in the end to recommend that they appoint no more than one of their own number to any commission, authority, or board. This decision may be reviewed at future DCCSC meetings.