Election 2008 : Dukes County government - an election primer
The County of Dukes County was first established in 1683 as part of the province of New York and 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 historical roots in Colonial times, was old-fashioned and had outlived its usefulness. Despite the abolition of most county government across the state, Dukes County, Martha's Vineyard'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 headed by a paid county manager who has full control over the administration of county services.
Following the resignation of E. Winn Davis in 2007, in April the County Commissioners ended an eight-month search process and hired Russell Smith of Tisbury to be the county's paid chief executive.
Mr. Smith, a civil engineer, is also legislative liaison to state representative Eric Turkington, a position that pays him $34,000 annually. The commissioners agreed to allow him to keep his job for the remainder of Rep. Turkington's term, which expires at the end of this year, and hired Mr. Smith at an annual salary of $45,000 and no benefits.
In January, pending a job performance evaluation, Mr. Smith will receive a full-time position with benefits at an annual salary of $60,000.
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, under the statutory control of the county-appointed airport commission, have self-sustaining sources of revenue.
County departments and services over which the county manager exercises direct control include rodent control; water testing laboratory; county beaches such as Norton Point; and veteran's services.
Most of the money for county services directly under the control of the county manager comes from individual town assessments, 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.
Town assessments account for 40 percent of the county's FY 09 operating budget. Edgartown taxpayers pay the largest share, $277,208, followed by Chilmark ($130,372), Oak Bluffs ($125,478), Tisbury ($122,808), West Tisbury ($114,799), Aquinnah ($26,697) and Gosnold ($11,123).
In part, the Dukes County commissioners erased a $179,000 fiscal 2009 budget deficit by cutting the rodent control ($69,457) and health-care departments ($88,863) by 50 percent and eliminating the county engineer ($63,755). The department cuts were made up by taxpayers in all the Martha's Vineyard towns during the spring round of annual town meetings. Ultimately, the commissioners intend to ask the towns to fully fund all the programs.
County commissioners appoint a voting member representing the Vineyard to the Steamship Authority board. They also appoint 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.