The Dukes County commissioners began this week to solicit town interest in a handful of opportunities for new regional agencies or services. The county government structure upon which the seven commissioners perch is under examination by the charter study commission. Voters created the charter study commission out of a widely shared conviction that the county commissioners and the county in general don't do much, that what the commissioners do they flub extravagantly, and that maybe we'd all be better off without this fourth layer of government interlarded between the impossibly distant federal government, the remote state government, and the town governments with which voters are familiar and over which they imagine they have some hands-on control. No one knows what the charter commission will decide to recommend to Vineyard voters about the future of county government. Breaking up is hard to do, and so is scrapping a useless layer of government, even if relentless brainstorming for a purpose has so far yielded only the unsupported assertion that there must be something important the county can do. Or, maybe one day there will be.
The list of possible county contributions to Vineyard life begins with a central, shared dog pound facility and extends to county management of recycling, composting, and solid waste. In between are grant writers, agricultural commissions, shared tax assessors, and joint purchasing. Not one of the suggestions is unmistakably a natural county function. Each might be encompassed by an inter-municipal agreement, tailored to town interests and supervised by volunteers.
The county's real interest reveals itself at the conclusion of their letter to the town selectmen. The county is prospecting for revenue. Even the most enthusiastic supporters of county government among the members of the Dukes County Charter Study Commission recognize that to be effective at what it does, never mind what it might do, the county needs more income. Layers of government, even inconsequential ones, want money. In their letter, the commissioners propose - they call the proposals "thoughts" - a hotel rooms tax ($300,000 in new revenue), a deeds excise tax ($11 million, "same as the Land Bank"), rental units for summer workers at the county's New York Avenue, Oak Bluffs property.
Whether it's a dog pound, a composting facility, an agricultural commission, or a joint tax assessor, is there anyone so naïve as to think that a regional layer of government, similar to the dysfunctional one we have today, can do any of these tasks less expensively and more efficiently than the towns, acting in ad hoc concert, would be able to do on their own? It's inconceivable.