As the Dukes County charter study committee continues its researches, Island voters and taxpayers are learning that there is some considerable variety in the way the several remaining county governments in Massachusetts are constructed. For those who have come to the conclusion that the structure of Dukes County government must be remodeled, if it is allowed to continue at all, there are red flags that must be heeded.
For instance, in a report this week, Dan Cabot, a Times contributing editor, describes a forum sponsored by the study commission to hear from leaders of county governments in Plymouth (a big county of about 500,000) and Nantucket (a small one, 10,000 residents, smaller than Dukes). In Nantucket, which is one town, whose jurisdiction is coterminous with that of Nantucket County, the annual assessment to taxpayers is $100,000. For Dukes County, whose population is about 1.7 times that of Nantucket, the proposed FY2008 assessment to the seven Dukes towns is nearly $790,000, or almost eight times the size of Nantucket's assessment. For Plymouth county, with 107 employees, the annual assessment to constituent towns exceeds $1 million, disproportionately small by comparison to the Dukes assessment correlated with its population, which is just one twenty-ninth the size of Plymouth's.
Or, consider this comment by Brian Chadwick, chairman of the Nantucket county commission. "We use the county to our benefit," Mr. Chadwick said, explaining the virtues of county government as experienced by Nantucketers. That's all the justification county government needs, one might say.
But, how do the activities of the county of Dukes County accrue to the benefit of Vineyard voters and taxpayers? The theory at the time the existing Dukes County charter was proposed was that a central government structure would become the efficient engine performing needed services that must by their natures span town lines. This was how Dukes County would benefit its member towns.
But, it hasn't, partly because no one had a clear vision of ways in which this municipality-spanning feature might be employed, or if someone had such a vision, he or she was unable to persuade the several towns to sign on. And, that reveals the fundamental flaw in such thinking. Dukes County comprises seven different, independent communities, mostly happy in their difference and independence. County and town at Nantucket may be coterminous, but not here.
Consider also that Mr. Chadwick went on to describe one particular way county government benefited Nantucketers, by streamlining the eminent domain process. Nantucket county has eminent domain power, so the five commissioners who are also the five town selectmen can move speedily to acquire land they deem worth having, without having to endure that pesky town meeting approval process that faces Vineyard towns that want to condemn private property. Do Vineyard and Gosnold selectmen, who are not county commissioners, want the county empowered to seize land without town meeting approval? Doubtful, in the extreme.
Or, consider the implications of another news report in this morning's Times. Island taxpayers in Aquinnah and Chilmark, we learn, will pay less for county government in fiscal 2008, while their counterparts in West Tisbury, Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Tisbury will pay more. Chilmark will save $20,572, while Edgartown will pay an additional $17,646 and Tisbury $13,441 more for county services, according to the $4,783,215 Dukes County budget plan for FY08. The cost allocations are based upon the equalized real estate valuations of the several towns, as calculated by the state. Suppose the towns would prefer a different method of allocating costs, say one based upon the value of services delivered by the county to the towns. Or, suppose voters wanted to have a say on the size of the budget, or at least of the 16.5 percent of the budget that county voters are obligated to pay. The current county structure effectively leaves voters out of the approval process.
There isn't a model county in Massachusetts whose structural features will suit Dukes County voters, so the question is not whether Dukes can be a county like Nantucket. The questions are more fundamental than that. For instance, why have a county government at all? Why have one if we cannot conceive an authentic purpose for it? If county government is needed, how can it be structured so county voters are fairly represented? And, finally, how might it be structured so that its budget is subject to voter approval, as every other government budget is?