Regional councils replace county governments
Hampshire and Franklin counties may be models
The Dukes County Charter Study Commission (DCCSC) heard last week from representatives of the former Hampshire and Franklin counties, rural counties in western Massachusetts. Both have given up county government in favor of regional councils of government.
No doubt some members of the audience came expecting to hear that Hampshire and Franklin counties threw off an unpopular form of government for one which better suited the needs of the people. That was not the case, according to their representatives at the DCCSC forum held on Thursday evening at the Tisbury Senior Center. In the 1990s, both Franklin and Hampshire counties were satisfied with county government, they said. However, then governor William Weld proposed in 1995 that all county governments be abolished, and the leaders of Franklin and Hampshire counties scrambled to preserve what they believed was about to be taken away.
In response to a question toward the end of the evening, Ann Banash, chairman of the executive committee of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG), summed up the history: "In hindsight, had we known that the threat of losing the county wasn't really real, we would have stayed a county. I think that we could do the things we're doing now by tweaking what we were doing."
Pennington Geis, council administrator of the Hampshire Council of Governments (HCOG), agreed and added, "I think we are much stronger now than we were then, but the things we're doing now we were thinking about doing then, and I think we could have done them faster had we not gone through the turmoil and the trouble of 'Are we going to survive?'"
Counties and councils
The chief difference between the former county governments and the FRCOG and the HCOG is that membership in the councils is voluntary. Assessments for county government (including Dukes County) are subtracted from each town's state revenues on its so-called "cherry sheet," a compendium of fees collected by the state on behalf of the towns, state aid to towns and schools, and payments for rent or other services provided to the state by the town. Towns in the counties controlled their county budget only through county advisory boards and the election, from time to time, of county commissioners. By contrast, the regional councils of government bill their assessments directly to the towns, which include them in their budgets and vote on them in their town meetings.
The councils of government are more connected to the towns, but there is always the possibility of a rash of defections. Ms. Banash commented, "There's no assurance that this form of government is sustainable." She reported that although all 26 towns of the former Franklin County are still members of FRCOG, "Nearly every year we have one town or two towns question why they belong to the council." She added that in order to withdraw from FRCOG, a town must pay a year's assessment, which is a deterrent to withdrawal. Ms. Banash regrets the loss of stability that the former county structure offered. "But," she added, "we're also more accountable than we ever were, and I think that's a good thing."
Ms. Geis said that of the original 20 towns in the HCOG, only 12 are members of HCOG. In general, it is larger towns which have withdrawn. She attributed towns' decisions to withdraw from the HGOG more to internal town politics than to any deficiencies in the HCOG.
Franklin Regional Council
Franklin was the first county in Massachusetts to give up county government and turn to a council of government structure, a process Ms. Banash likened to jumping off a cliff. In order to get the FRCOG approved by the state legislature, the leaders had to agree to transfer all county real estate to the Commonwealth, to be prohibited from bonding, and to take on part of the cost of the county retirement and retiree health insurance programs.
The FRCOG consists of a council, which meets quarterly, an executive committee, which meets monthly, and a regional planning board, roughly equivalent to the Martha's Vineyard Commission (but without regulatory powers). The council is made up of a selectmen (or an appointed representative) from each of the 26 towns, plus one member appointed by the planning board and two members elected at large. The executive committee is the two at-large members, the planning board appointee, and two other members of the council elected by the council. Ms. Banash is currently the chairman of the executive committee. The FRCOG is managed by an executive director appointed and supervised by the executive committee.
Funding comes from revenues and from a statutory assessment, which pays for county retirement and retiree health insurance (required of all towns in the former Franklin County), and a voluntary assessment for administration, services, and special projects such as one now underway to provide broadband service to all the towns in the region. Each town's assessment is based 90 percent on its population and 10 percent on its equalized property value. Substantial revenues come from grants and fees for the administration of grants.
Services to FRCOG member towns include a community coalition for teens (paid for by state and federal grants); cooperative building, plumbing, and wiring inspections for 18 participating towns; cooperative purchasing; municipal accounting for six of the smallest towns; a regional nurse; emergency management planning; and a regional health agent and a regional engineer. The FRCOG also facilitates cooperative ventures among member towns for functions such as property assessing services and animal control. Services are billed to the towns according to proportional use of the services in the preceding three years.
The original FRCOG charter (1997) established a separate fee-for-service program for towns that wanted to pay for services such as engineering and purchasing on a pay-as-you-go basis, but fee-for-service has been deemed unworkable and is being abandoned. Member towns that use a service are assessed a proportion of its region-wide cost. (HCOG also finds fee-for-service an unworkable method, according to Ms. Geis.)
Asked if she considered the towns "stockholders" in FRCOG, Ms. Banash replied, "Absolutely. We exist for the towns."
The 17 HCOG members are elected to two-year terms by the 12 towns that currently hold membership. Towns have more or fewer councilors according to population, but each town has at least one person on the council. The council elects an executive committee. The chairman of the executive committee appoints committees and committee chairmen. Ms. Geis is the appointed council administrator, the executive director. The council sets policy. Ms. Geis, in her words, is "the boss."
The HCOG is funded by assessed membership dues, program fees, grants, and earned revenues. Because the HCOG has important assets, the earned revenues are substantial. The COG supplies services (including electricity) to more than 80 towns, districts, and regional schools. Membership dues of less than $150,000 support an annual program cash flow of about $38 million. Ms. Geis said that the initially high membership dues have been reduced every year, and now the HCOG dues are lower than when Hampshire was a county.
Services include a group insurance trust, a rehabilitation and skilled nursing facility, an electricity supplying program (Hampshire Power), and a cooperative purchasing program, as well as other regional services, such as building inspection. The registry of deeds, the sheriff's department, and the emergency communications center were taken over by the state.
Ms. Geis was the chief negotiator with the governor and the legislature when Hampshire gave up county government and became a council. Benefiting from observing Franklin's struggles with the state, Ms. Geis was able to negotiate a somewhat better deal, and the HCOG was able to maintain several assets, including the courthouse and the county nursing home, and avoid indebtedness to the county retirement program. It did, however, give up several properties to the state.
Ms. Geis told the DCCSC that she misses the stability of being a county (8 of 20 towns in Hampshire County do not belong to HCOG). She felt that towns have tended to leave the HCOG when the elected representatives to the HCOG were "not on the same page" with the elected selectmen. She advanced that as a possible argument for having the selectmen appoint the HCOG members, although she said that the members of HCOG, all of whom are elected, might not agree with her.
Ms. Geis said that she finds independence from the legislature a large benefit of HCOG. She advised the DCCSC to propose a charter, whether a county or a council, that keeps control on Martha's Vineyard.
Asked about why other counties have given up county government, Ms. Geis implied that the problem may not have been so much flaws in the county government system but failures of county officials in those counties.
"Systems matter," she said, "but no matter what system you get, you have to have good people."