County review looks at Barnstable
Last week in the last in a series of three forums, the Dukes County Charter Study Commission (DCCSC) heard from two representatives of Barnstable County government, known officially as the Cape Cod Regional Government. Bill Doherty, a current Barnstable County commissioner and former chairman of the commissioners, and Tom Bernardo, the chairman of the 2000 and 2005 charter reviews, discussed county government on Cape Cod from their different perspectives. Mr. Doherty spoke as a current county official. Mr. Bernardo, recently unsuccessful in a bid to unseat Mr. Doherty, is not currently an officeholder and presented himself as an outsider.
Mr. Doherty walked the meeting through the structure of Barnstable County, a county since 1685. The present county structure was established in 1988 by a home rule act of the state legislature and amended in 2000 and 2005. It is unusual in having both a legislative and an executive branch.
The legislative branch is the elected Assembly of Delegates, one from each of the 15 towns in the county. Among other functions, the Assembly parallels the (appointed) Dukes County Advisory Board, in that it "reviews and adopts by ordinance the regional government's budget, capital improvement plan, and supplemental appropriations." However, the Assembly also "has a primary role in approving regional policy and activities of the county." It has standing committees on important regional issues, which hold public hearings.
Each town has one delegate to the Assembly, elected for a two-year term, but the delegates have votes weighted according to population, somewhat similar to the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, which reported on July 19. This means that the largest town, Barnstable, controls 22 percent of each vote in the assembly, while Chatham, for example, has 2.9 percent. Mr. Bernardo, from Chatham, was a speaker of the Assembly of Delegates for six years before his unsuccessful run for commissioner.
Barnstable also has three county commissioners, elected at large to staggered four-year terms, responsible for managing the county and for appointing the county administrator.
Services of the Barnstable county government include a registry of deeds, a cooperative extension service (Dukes County once had such an educational service), a county health department, a resource development office, an economic development council, a department of human services (which promotes but does not provide services), and a child advocacy center. Barnstable County also has a dredge and a fire-rescue training school.
The Barnstable County Sheriff, whose department operates the communications center as well as the jails, is elected independently and derives most of his income from the state, though the county has "fiduciary responsibility" for oversight of his spending.
The Cape Cod Commission also falls under the general supervision of county government. This is unlike the independent Martha's Vineyard Commission, though Mr. Bernardo later said that enfolding the MVC would gain an advantage for Dukes County.
The view from outside
Mr. Bernardo made several observations from, he said, his position unencumbered by holding an office in Barnstable County. He began by pointing out that in the Southern United States and the Mid-West, counties are strong and towns are weak, but in New England, towns are strong and counties are weak. Some counties in Massachusetts have functioned only as havens for patronage jobs and corruption. He pointed to Middlesex County, which went bankrupt and was the first to be taken over by the state.
Mr. Bernardo warned that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts always "looks for how to increase their ability to increase their ability." The state, he said, is interested in taking over sources of income. He cited the proposed takeover of underperforming county pension funds as an example of the state's interest in supplanting counties. "Other things are also attractive to the state.... There have been no counties where the county assessments have gone away when county government went away. The state continued to collect the assessments."
Mr. Bernardo had some pointed advice for the DCCSC:
county government must constantly justify itself and sell itself to the voters. He confessed that although Barnstable County delivers a long list of valuable services, half the residents don't know there is a county government. "The Cape Cod Commission is so strong that people don't even know about [our] other departments, even though we have some of the most cutting edge things in the nation." He said that Dukes County should make known the difference in quality-of-life issues with and without county government, a task Barnstable County has not performed as well as it should have.
The second point he made is that regionalization is bound to happen, whether or not there is a county government. Towns, he said, will probably continue to have their own police, fire, schools, and probably public works departments. "But for an awful lot of things - like health, environmental controls, wastewater, things we take for granted - the cost-dollar-averaging of what can be done with those services is so blatantly evident that they will [regionalize] for no other reason than the bottom line."
Mr. Bernardo said that the state may not necessarily be the only entity to benefit from failures in county government. A useful regional function could be taken over by a big town. As an example, he cited the Barnstable County Bureau of Weights and Measures, which, among other things, used to certify the accuracy of pumps at gas stations. When Barnstable County failed to fund the department for a year or two, the town of Barnstable took the job over and now operates it region-wide as a money-maker for the town.
Along with explaining itself to the towns, a regional government should listen more closely to the towns, Mr. Bernardo said. "'Bottom up' is always better than a department head saying, 'I've got a project - let me go sell it to the towns.' That doesn't have political credibility or sustainability." If a regional government hopes to be viable, it should first find out what the people want it to do.
The two guests both referred to "core services," but their responses to a question from Russell Smith showed that they did not always mean the same thing by the phrase. Mr. Doherty defined the core services of Barnstable County as those services outlined in the official pamphlet, but Mr. Bernardo said core services is a concept that changes. "They are the minimum critical mass that can justify your reason to exist," he said. A county, he explained, must identify needs, prove that they cannot be provided by the state, build popular support, and get local representatives to persuade the state legislature to go along.
He went on to say, "What you need more than [structure] is a relationship with the population. If...they believe and trust in your [core services], the infrastructure can be many shapes and sizes.... But the relationship with the population is where the power is."