The County of Dukes County was established in 1683, as part of the province of New York. It was later annexed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691.
During the Republican administration of Gov. William F. Weld, county governments across the state were eliminated by state lawmakers who argued that county government, with its historic roots in Colonial times, was old-fashioned and had outlived its usefulness. Despite the abolition of most county government across the state, Dukes County, the Island’s only form of regional government, managed to survive under a specially written and adopted county charter.
The seven elected, unpaid members of the Dukes County Commission exercise general legislative powers. They preside over a county government led by a paid county manager who has full control over the administration of county services.
Russell Smith of Tisbury is the current county manager.
County commissioners also appoint a voting member representing the Vineyard to the Steamship Authority; and the members of the airport commission, which is responsible for the Martha’s Vineyard Airport, the state’s only county-owned airport and business park.
Under the county charter, there cannot be more than two county commissioners elected from each town, but there is no requirement that each town have a county commissioner. County commissioners are elected for two-year terms, beginning in 2011.
Although included in the county budget, the Sheriff’s Department, the Registry of Deeds, both headed by elected officials, and the Martha’s Vineyard Airport, statutorily under the control of the county-appointed airport commission, have independent sources of revenue.
County departments and services over which the county manager exercises direct authority include rodent control and veteran’s services.
Most of the money for county services directly under the control of the county manager comes from individual town assessments, which are based on real estate valuation. Taxpayers are often unaware of the amount because it does not appear as a line item on annual town meeting warrants.
The county budget for fiscal year 2011 that began on July 1 is $1.84 million. Assessments to the six Island towns, plus Gosnold, total $849,419. Edgartown shoulders the largest part of the burden, $305,424, or 36 percent.
Beyond the assessment, Island towns this year agreed to pay an increased share of the county’s health access program, the integrated pest services department, and the cost to replace windows in the Dukes County courthouse.
Those appropriations add $146,726 to the regular county assessment, bringing the taxpayer contribution to the county budget to $996,145.