Maybe the seventh time will be the charm


If the negotiating is successful, Dukes County government will soon have a new professional county manager. Katherine Rogers is a New Hampshire resident and a lawyer. She will be the sixth to try the job since 1994. Respectfully, this page suggests that Ms. Rogers ought to make her first order of business the dissolution of county government.

The silly debate that preceded Ms. Rogers’s selection teetered on the question of whether an Islander or an off-Islander would be the better choice. In fact, the real question is who will see this superfluous, disorderly, underemployed supercargo of a government layer for what it is and do something about it. If Ms. Rogers were from the moon, but she saw the county clearly, we’d say sign her up.

The county manager oversees three people in three departments — the manager’s office, veterans affairs, and integrated pest management. The recent occupant of this office was an Island resident, as are the seven commissioners. Their record is unmarked by progress or usefulness.

Until 1993, three elected, modestly paid county commissioners ran a county government significantly more complicated, with more moving parts. There was no professional manager, and there were more departments subject to the commissioners’ direct supervision. What they didn’t make a hash of, the state reached out and took — control of the airport, for example, the sheriff’s department, and the courts.

Today, the seven unpaid commissioners, their well-paid manager, and her subordinate have nothing improving to do and do it poorly.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In Plymouth (a big county of about 500,000) and Nantucket (a small one, 10,000 residents, smaller than Dukes), county government functions differently. In Nantucket, which is one town whose jurisdiction is coterminous with that of Nantucket County, the annual assessment to taxpayers is barely more than $100,000. For Dukes County, whose population is about 1.7 times that of Nantucket, the FY2013 assessment is $670,518, or nearly seven times the size of Nantucket’s assessment. For Plymouth County, with 107 employees, the annual assessment to constituent towns exceeds $1 million, disproportionately small by comparison to the Dukes assessment, correlated with its population.

How do the activities of the County of Dukes County accrue to the benefit of Vineyard voters and taxpayers? The theory at the time the existing Dukes County charter was proposed was that a central government structure would become the efficient engine performing needed services that must by their natures span town lines. This was how Dukes County would benefit its member towns.

But, it hasn’t, partly because no one had a clear vision of ways in which this municipality-spanning feature might be employed. Or, if someone had such a vision, he or she was unable to persuade the several towns to sign on. And that reveals the fundamental flaw in such thinking. Dukes County comprises seven different, independent communities, mostly happy in their difference and independence. County and town at Nantucket may be coterminous, but not here.

Or, consider the implications of the equalized real estate valuations of the several towns, as calculated by the state and used as the basis for apportioning the county’s costs to the towns. Suppose the towns would prefer a different method of allocating costs, for instance one based upon the value of services delivered by the county to the towns. Or, suppose voters wanted to have a say on the size of the budget, or at least of the 16.5 percent of the budget that county voters are obligated to pay. The current county structure effectively leaves voters out of the approval process.

There isn’t a model county in Massachusetts whose structural features will suit Dukes County voters. It’s not a matter of adapting county government to a pattern operating elsewhere. Massachusetts has all but extinguished the county government relic. The question is, why have a county government at all? Why have one if we cannot conceive an authentic purpose for it? Perhaps Ms. Rogers will think of something useful for the county to do. We’re rooting for her, but we’re skeptical.