Counties elsewhere describe useful county governments
Representatives of Plymouth and Nantucket counties reported to a forum sponsored by the Dukes County Charter Study Commission (DCCSC) last week that their two counties are functioning well.
Only six of 14 Massachusetts counties still have active county governments,
Plymouth and Nantucket counties are very different in size, structure, and services. Plymouth County, with a population of nearly 500,000, includes the city of Brockton and 26 towns. It has 107 county employees and an annual assessment to taxpayers of more than $1 million. Nantucket County has only one town, with a year-round population of about 10,000. It has 16 employees (half of whom work for the Nantucket Land Bank) and an annual assessment of $100,000.
Jeffrey Welch, chairman of the Plymouth County commissioners, explained that his county has no individual charter but operates under "a combination of the Massachusetts General Laws, special acts of the legislature, by custom, and by directives from various state elected officials."
Allen Reinhard, chairman of the Nantucket selectmen, and Brian Chadwick, chairman of the Nantucket County Commission, said that Nantucket has a custom county charter developed simultaneously with the Nantucket town charter and designed to dovetail with it. Both charters were approved by the legislature in 1998. By design, the five Nantucket selectmen are ex officio the county commissioners and deal with county matters and town matters at contiguous meetings. County business and budgets are voted at town meetings.
Mr. Welch described a long list of services provided by Plymouth County. He especially noted a modern registry of deeds, which he said is superior to those operated by the state. He also described the maintenance of several courthouses (the county leases courtroom space to the state), group purchasing, processing of parking tickets, a cooperative extension service, a fire observation plane, promotion of tourism, process-serving, maintenance of 540 acres of conservation land, the custody of historical records, and a county-owned prison farm. There is a county sheriff's department and jail, but only $400,000 of its $60 million budget comes from the county (in a separate assessment).
Plymouth County also provides group health insurance to 28 government entities within the county and processes approximately $95 million in claims annually for 9,253 municipal employees and their families. Mr. Welch said that health insurance is the largest responsibility of Plymouth County government and added, "As such, it has undoubtedly been the cause of most of the controversy and discord that has surrounded the county commissioners over the past five years."
By contrast, Mr. Chadwick described Nantucket County as "probably the easiest in the state to run." He further described it as a "melded government" and "a melting pot of county and town." Mr. Reinhard explained that in the 1990s, when it looked as if Massachusetts might abolish county government statewide, Nantucketers calculated that being one of 14 counties would give them a larger voice at the state level than being one of 351 cities and towns. The charter commission, established in 1992, soon found that there would be advantages in having a town charter as well and expanded its work to include that.
Mr. Chadwick told the DCCSC that Nantucket County also has a registry of deeds, a county clerk (who is also the town clerk), and a sheriff's department (funded largely by the state). He said that most of the county departments are "self-funded," and the $100,000 annual assessment hasn't changed in four years.
"We use the county to our benefit," Mr. Chadwick said. As an example, he and Mr. Reinhard pointed to the use of the county's power to take land by eminent domain, a power included in its charter. This has been useful, they said, in acquiring public access to beaches. The five commissioners can order the taking of old "proprietor's ways" to the water. These ways are then turned over to the town. In response to a question from West Tisbury selectman Glenn Hearn, the Nantucket commissioners replied that the eminent domain takings are usually welcomed by the abutting landowners, because the narrow strips of land are often then sold to the abutters in exchange for public access, clearing what is often a disputed title, giving the abutters a measure of control over the ways, and removing fears of more intrusive measures. As a plus for the town, the land is added to the tax rolls.
In many cases, according to Mr. Reinhard, the five county commissioners can act quickly and autonomously to begin eminent domain proceedings when an opportunity arises. For the town to take the same action would require a town meeting.
The greatest difference between Plymouth and Nantucket counties is in the accountability of the commissioners. Mr. Welch described the Plymouth "Advisory Board on County Expenditures," which has the power to "increase, decrease, alter, and revise any budget submitted by the commissioners." The board is comprised of one selectman from each town and the mayor of the city of Brockton. Each municipality is given a weighted vote based on its equalized valuation. But other than through the Advisory Board and through voting for county commissioners when their terms are up, Plymouth County voters have no say in county finances.
In response to a question, Mr. Welch said that the Plymouth commissioners are "no longer under the radar... A lot of people don't understand what county government is." In his prepared remarks, Mr. Welch commented, "As for the long term, the greatest challenge is convincing the residents of our county that county government serves a useful purpose and that it performs its functions more efficiently and more cost-effectively than either the state or the town alone could."
In contrast, Nantucket voters are more connected to county government. In addition to reelecting or not reelecting the selectmen who are the commissioners, voters vote on the county budget at town meetings. In response to a question about the selectmen's performing multiple functions (they are also the Board of Health, the Sewer Commissioners, and other roles), Mr. Reinhard described the way Nantucket County does business as "transparent." "There are many people to make sure we're behaving," he said.
Nantucket has recently completed a charter review, which approved the way things are going and recommended an automatic five-year charter review. The next review will be in 2010.
Plymouth County has no charter and therefore no charter review. A charter study commission was elected in 1986, but the charter they proposed was defeated in the election of 1988. A subsequent attempt to establish a charter study commission was rejected by voters in 1994, 57 percent to 43 percent.
What happens when county
government is abolished?
This question will be the subject at the second of three public forums, which will be held by the DCCSC tonight (Thursday, July 19) from 7 to 9 pm at the Tisbury Senior Center.
According to a press release, guests will be representatives from Franklin and Hampshire counties, rural areas in western Massachusetts, whose governments were abolished some years ago at the behest of the legislature. Both formed regional councils of governments instead.
Speakers will be Ann Banash, current Chair of the seven-member Executive Committee of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. She will join Pennington Geis, Executive Director of the Hampshire Council of Governments and formerly the county administrator. Ms. Geis was also the chief negotiator with the Commonwealth during the dissolution process.
The public and Island officials are encouraged to attend.