Editorial : County government – selectmen know the score, time to end the game
Katherine Rogers, a lawyer and resident of Concord, New Hampshire, will not accept the job of Dukes County manager. Ms. Rogers had applied for the job, got it, and would have begun negotiations on the terms of employment — a salary of as much as $75,000, perhaps, with nothing required to earn it — when she said to county commission chairman Melinda Loberg that, on second thought, forget it.
This is only the latest stumble in the history of paid county managers. This Dukes County layer of government, perched atop the seven-town management mystery that is un-regionalized Martha's Vineyard, has stumbled so repeatedly over so many years that one wonders if it ever walks upright.
The big debate over whom to choose as the next manager was whether a native, or at least resident and familiar, Islander would be the better choice. The true debate ought to have been when and how do we shut this misbegotten sham down.
Leaving aside the obvious culpability of the commissioners for this latest flub, and ignoring for the moment their culpability for perpetuating this county nonsense, perhaps those fundamentally responsible are the selectmen.
The selectmen — 23 of them total — have failed taxpayers in their several towns by enabling this do-nothing-and-do-that-poorly county government. And, in failing to offer the leadership they ought to, they allow the notion a) that county government does useful work; or b) that, if it does no useful work now, it might do so in the future. Meanwhile, the county's lame efforts to come to grips with its budget mean a) that the towns pay more and more of the costs for those few county functions that remain in its portfolio, and that b) the town's contributions to the cost of these functions comes on top of the price the towns pay through the county assessments for the same services.
What the selectmen ought to be leading voters to understand is that these few functions, nominally the responsibility of the county, could be undertaken by an ad hoc consortium of willing towns and perhaps contracted to private businesses to operate. And they are expensive – $670,000 to the county in the fiscal year. The town breakdown is Aquinnah, $25,000; Chilmark, $106,000; Edgartown, $245,000; Gosnold, $9,000; Oak Bluffs, $99,000; Tisbury, $97,000; and West Tisbury, $88,000. Then there's $54,000 for pest management and $154,000 for the health care access program. Both of these had been county responsibilities. And, by the way, the schools pay additional charges for the services of the pest manager.
If you, the voter, think of the airport when you think of the county, think again. If you think of the sheriff's department, think again. The court system, the probate system, the registry, the Martha's Vineyard Commission – all have apparent county attachments, none is a Dukes County function. Rat control, veterans' affairs, the health care access – these are initiatives the county oversees, but each could be overseen by a volunteer board, much the way the four-town and two-town refuse districts are.
Last week, this page suggested — in anticipation of her hiring — that Ms. Rogers ought to make her first order of business the dissolution of county government. Her resumé was such that it was reasonable to expect that once she got her feet on the Vineyard's shifting soil, she would understand and get busy with the interment. Alas, the voters' lonely eyes must turn elsewhere, and that elsewhere is the seven towns' selectmen.
The selectmen know what the county government is and what, more importantly, it is not. They know that their voters are paying more and more for something that is not there. Selectmen need to let voters know that the moment has come, before another $75,000-plus runs down the drain, to do the important work of dismantling county government and with it the illusion that it is substantial and substantially important in any way at all.
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? The selectmen need to stand up for clear reason and put a dignified end to this charade.