A state Department of Revenue (DOR) review of Dukes County finances and organizational structure recommends 18 changes to improve county operations.
But the report, issued September 27, says that even if the county embraces all recommendations, there is no assurance of improvement and recommends the county consider an entirely new form of county government.
In pointed language, the review highlights deficiencies that undermine confidence in county government and put it in a poor position to assume regional services, the study’s authors say.
The county commission requested the review, specifically requesting DOR to examine the role Dukes County might play in regionalization of Island services.
The report’s authors write, “Looking ahead, it may seem reasonable to envision the county, with thoughtful planning, offering additional services under similar management and cost sharing arrangements. However, there are obstacles. The current organizational structure is one. The lack of universal confidence in county government is another, as is disagreement on the role of county government on the Island.”
The report concludes that a regional role for the county may be beyond reach. “While operating in this environment, we do not believe the county government is at all well positioned to fulfill a meaningful role in the regionalization of municipal services.”
County commission chairman Carlene Gatting said most of the recommendations in the report are in the process of being implemented, or are already in place. She said the recommendations in the report are not far off the mark.
“At best, county government struggles,” Ms. Gatting said. “It has no money, it functions at the behest of the towns, yet it has no direct connection to the towns.”
Form and function
In the first of two primary recommendations, the DOR review suggests the county consider an alternative form of government. It offers a “council of government” structure like those adopted in 1997 in Hampshire and Franklin counties when those counties abolished county government, as an example of how Dukes County might operate more efficiently.
In Hampshire and Franklin counties, a representative from each city or town in the region becomes a member of a council to make decisions. Inter-municipal agreements determine how towns pay for county services. A council of government would have administrative and financial functions and a staff to carry them out. The report notes that Hampshire and Franklin councils operate as a “host agency,” to provide a wide range of services through simpler organizational structure and more direct link to member communities.
A charter study commission considered, but rejected, just such a change when it examined Dukes County government beginning in 2006. Representatives of Hampshire and Franklin counties made a presentation for the commission.
“We didn’t see that as a fit for the Island,” said William O’Brien 3rd, a retired New York judge and Oak Bluffs resident, who was chairman of the charter study commission. “You have to have the right circumstances to get that kind of form of government. Does anybody think all six towns would participate in this kind of government? There was a lot of uncertainty about that when we looked at it. There is no guarantee that once they agree to participate in a council form of government, they would stay in it.”
The charter study commission’s final report in 2008 recommended the county government structure remain largely unchanged
The second primary recommendation in the DOR review is to form a strategic planning committee. Commission chairman Carlene Gatting said she is currently organizing such a committee, and she intends it to begin meeting in January.
“”I formed the committee a month or two ago,” Ms. Gatting said, “to look at this once again and find a structure that works.”
She said the committee would include county commissioners, Island selectmen, and members of the county advisory board, which has approval authority over the county budget.
The report notes that large parts of the county government fall outside of the control of county commissioners and the county managers. In other counties, the same functions operate under state control, or independently.
“The Registry of Deeds might be transferred to the Office of the Secretary of State, which currently oversees eight of the original fourteen county registries. The airport commission might function independently in the same way the Steamship Authority does.”
DOR said it would expect a strategic planning committee to organize a series of public forums and publish a report of its findings and recommendations.
“It will be clear whether regionalization is endorsed as an effective, lower cost means to sustain or add services, and whether county government, or some other regional structure, is regarded as a legitimate building block for success.”
The DOR report includes recommendations relating to the budgeting process.
“The budget process in Dukes County appears less than successful. The process is largely ad hoc, despite being grounded in a collection of Massachusetts general laws and local resolutions,” the report says. “It is also heavily reliant on the work of the treasurer and the executive assistant.
“In addition, the budget is often late, requiring 1/12th budgets to continue operations after the start of the fiscal year.
“Clearly, a strong commitment to the budget process is lacking. Communication and the exchange of information between and among county officials needs to improve, and commitment to a more robust and successful budget process needs to emerge.”
The report offers a framework to set up sound budget policy, including: establish a budget calendar, develop revenue projections and budget guidelines, and issue departmental appropriation requests.
The report also recommends “the county treasurer distribute quarterly revenue and expenditure reports, as well as conduct quarter budget projections.”
The report includes many other financial recommendations, calling for action to standardize payroll. It calls for the county to develop a uniform employee time sheet and require direct deposit of paychecks where possible. It also calls for streamlining the process for submitting requisitions and invoices.
DOR calls for publication of an annual report, as required by law. The review said a formal annual report has not been published in recent years.
The charter study commission report issued in 2008 included many similar recommendations for tighter financial controls.
“There are some very good things in the report, things we were hoping they would address,” Mr. O’Brien said.
Several of the DOR recommendations involved personnel policy and procedures.
The report says county treasurer Noreen Mavro Flanders is a valuable asset to the county, but it recommends that at an opportune time in the future, the county convert the elected position to a position appointed by the county manager.
Mr. O’Brien vigorously disagreed with that recommendation.
“To suggest that we appoint the county treasurer is not good,” Mr. O’Brien said. “I think the people of this county should have the choice to vote. At a time in government we’re trying to bring more integrity to it, why are we going to go back to an appointment process for a county-wide official who is such an important part of county government?”
The DOR review recommends that executive assistant Martina Thornton’s job title be changed from executive assistant, to deputy county manager.
“The county manager’s executive assistant performs a wide array of highly visible and responsible administrative functions that require a comprehensive knowledge of county operations and the exercise of judgment in dealing with the public. As demonstrated during our visit, the executive assistant works independently, assists in day-to-day management activities, and is often called upon to respond to operational issues.”
The report suggests county commissioners adopt revised job descriptions, develop employee performance review procedures to augment the current performance review policy, and define personnel board responsibilities.
County commissioners established a personnel board in May, but the report said it is still not formed.
“A personnel board can have a meaningful and productive role,” the report said. “However, we caution against establishing yet another layer of officials whose jurisdiction is limited.”