Editorial: For Dukes County and the towns, a move in the right direction

The Dukes County Commissioners had to be dragooned into making a smart decision, but their plan to put the pest management enterprise out to bid, for at least Tisbury, West Tisbury, and Oak Bluffs, makes sense. And, as Melinda Loberg, a commission member from Tisbury, acknowledged recently, the results of the bidding process may be eye-opening for all six towns and the commissioners themselves.

This page has never once been surprised by the Potemkin village nature of Dukes County government. It is a scrim of a government hoping for something to govern. Give us a job to do, the commission members ask of the state of Massachusetts and the Vineyard towns, even as the state withdraws former county responsibilities and the towns answer, when the phone doesn’t ring you’ll know it’s town governments calling. County government does little, does it poorly, and never ever steps up its game, all of which has been an unalloyed relief to its constituents.

You name the landmark county attributes — the criminal, civil, and probate courts, the registry of deeds, the sheriff’s department, the county-owned beaches, the airport — and none of them falls to the county to manage. Sometimes, taxpayers acknowledge, God is good.

The Martha’s Vineyard Airport, which by statute is under the control of the appointed airport commission and its professional airport manager, accounts for more than half of the county budget. The state and the courts have told the county commissioners they can’t play there.

The sheriff’s office is now under state control. The registry of deeds and the office of the county treasurer are county departments headed by elected county officials who do not answer to the county manager. Each has direct control over their employees.

In terms of day-to-day supervision and responsibilities, the county manager oversees a total of just three people in three departments — her office, veterans affairs, and integrated pest management. And, concerning the latter, a service of ambiguous reporting responsibilities, inscrutable bookkeeping, and increasing expense, the county has been shifting the cost of it over time entirely to the towns, though retaining and overseeing the pest office as though it were an important county function.

Until 1993, three elected, paid county commissioners presided over county government. In 1994, voters created a new form of county government that delegated general legislative powers to a seven-member board of unpaid commissioners and gave a county manager full control over the county administration. This enlargement of county administration anticipated an enlargement of the appetites of the six Island towns for more and better county government.

As it happened, what actually occurred was the amputation of county responsibilities, in part because of the county’s demonstrated inability to get things done rationally — the airport expansion fiasco of years ago for one, and the sheriff’s department, wrenched from the county’s grasp because of the state’s need to streamline its own budget relationship with county governments that were crumbling across the state. Plus, the towns, exercising that rarest of all government attributes, common sense, asked for nothing from the county. Indeed, over time the county has shifted more and more of the costs of some of the shreds of its legacy responsibilities to the towns.

Now, in part because three of the six Vineyard towns have concluded that there must be a better way, Dukes County will trim its budget and put integrated pest management out to bid.

As Times writer Steve Myrick reports this morning, “An analysis of billing records for the six Island towns and Gosnold shows that the IPM service is heavily weighted toward the owners of commercial properties — including inns, grocery stores, retail outlets — and private residences. Town and county buildings in the seven towns are the smallest category of customers served, 15 percent of service calls. This year, taxpayers in the seven Dukes County towns appropriated a total of $67,021 for the IPM program’s operating expenses. That was in addition to the county assessment to fund operations that totaled $670,518. (Individual town contributions vary and are based on property valuation.)

It’s not the biggest number with which taxpayers must come to grips each year, but there is the question of value, and what town wouldn’t benefit from savings that might be usefully put to work in other ways.