Editorial : State embraces sheriff's department
Despite opposition in the legislature to Gov. Deval Patrick's plan to raise the salaries of Dukes County and Nantucket sheriffs, as part of a move to bring these hybrid corrections officials under the state umbrella, the essential thrust of the governor's plan has support.
Planned to go into effect on July 1, the change would bring sheriffs and employees from the two islands and Barnstable, Bristol, Suffolk, Norfolk and Plymouth counties onto state benefit and payroll systems and end the practice of supporting sheriffs through real estate deeds revenues, which have slumped along with the real estate market. Dukes County commissioners worry that the bill leaves municipalities within the counties with unfunded retiree healthcare and pension liabilities. The bill leaves sheriffs' employees and retirees in the county pension system but transfers healthcare coverage to the Group Insurance Commission, a move the committee believes will ease county liabilities. County officials aren't so sure. After July 1, the central question must be what's left for Dukes County government to oversee?
Dukes County Sheriff Michael McCormack has been a supporter of the planned change, though his enthusiasm may be dampened by the legislature's stinginess on pay. Under the governor's proposal, before it was molested by the legislature, Sheriff McCormack's pay would have risen from $97,000 to $123,000.
The governor says that annexing the sheriff departments, as the bill proposes, would make for "more stable and predictable budgeting." His finance advisor suggests that $6 to $9 million would be saved overall.
The changes the governor proposes, and the legislature disposes, are certainly only an intermediate step. An eight-member commission established by the bill will study a more general consolidation with further cost-saving efforts and report by the end of the year.
Where all this is headed, as in the movement a decade ago to abolish county government altogether, is the elimination of a distributed state corrections system. The legislative committee will look for a way to close or consolidate sheriff's offices, and that means the end of the sheriff's offices in Dukes and Nantucket counties.
Like the state's assumption of control of the district court system, like its steady effort to eliminate county governments, like its elimination of separate House districts for each Island, like its current arrangement for district attorney services, the consolidation of corrections offices, including the elimination of full-blown sheriff's departments on the two islands, appears to be an irresistible force. Economics - that is, state government rather than county government economics - appear likely to prevail as the decisions get made.