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Can't we all get along? No.Someone asked the other day whether it is likely that in the next few years, or even in the foreseeable future, the voters in the six Island towns will come to their senses and recognize the need for cooperation "in the areas of water quality, emergency planning, education, and waste disposal, not to mention the rapidly escalating costs of operating six towns as if they were sovereign countries." The language is from letter writer Richard Knabel of West Tisbury, a member of the Dukes County Charter Study Commission whose letter to the editor appears across the way this morning. Mr. Knabel was not the questioner.
The answer is no, they will not. And, if standing by until they do is the chief reason for continuing in operation what we generously refer to as "county government," then someone will just have to conjure another justification. There are three reasons why the six towns do not yearn for regionalization of the sort Mr. Knabel regards as sensible. (Leave aside Gosnold, the seventh Dukes County town, for the moment. Actually, as far as Gosnold is concerned, leave it aside perpetually.)
First, the towns are different fundamentally, in size, character, wealth, and the role they want government to play in the lives of their voters. The residents and summer residents of each like things the way they are. They like to deal with their neighbors when they go to town hall. They choose to continue to be different and resist interactions with other towns that might complicate or threaten their inwardness. It is quite a reasonable basis on which to choose and live in a town.
Second, the towns are all, to a greater or lesser extent, rich, though they are not equally rich. But in all of them, real estate value per capita is high, tax rates are low (at least compared with rates in other parts of the Northeast megalopolis), and the majority of tax revenues are paid by property owning non-residents who are not voters, do not live here year-round, and do not ask much in the way of municipal or regional services. Islanders in most towns get their government services for about 45 cents on the dollar, so they spend lavishly. Even so, they hate getting their tax bills and use several benighted intellectual strategies to blame it on the trophy house builders and the land values.
Being rich, the savings normally promised to voters by supporters of regionalizing government services, but regarded skeptically by the few penny-pinchers among us, aren't attractive enough to inspire enthusiasm for new, self-perpetuating layers of government that will certainly dilute the direct authority that town meetings exercise over town affairs.
Third, activities that must span town boundaries, for which efficiencies can plausibly be alleged, can and have been undertaken by towns in careful concert with other towns, on an ad hoc basis. Consider the Oak Bluffs-Tisbury trash district and the other four-town district. Consider education and the hodgepodge of special purpose districts created to perform education. (Also consider the devilish issues arising from the apportionment of costs for these educational services.) Consider too the Island's emergency planning coordination, now nominally centralized at the county level, but easily envisioned as an emergency planning district accepted by each of the towns and overseen by the six fire chiefs, or the six police chiefs, or the leaders of the Island EMTs, by contract with the towns. Consider the un-institutionalized cooperation among police and fire departments. Consider the regional approach to land use regulation embodied in the Martha's Vineyard Commission.
As Popeye might have put it, "They are what they are." Now, thankfully, and ever.