The Dukes County Charter Study Commission will almost certainly recommend to Island voters next year that county government, in a somewhat altered form, be retained. There are two controlling views that appear to underpin this recommendation. One view holds that the county possesses considerable assets, chiefly the airport, but other real estate, improvements, and equipment as well, that would be lost to state control if the county were dissolved. The other view is that there are substantial current and potential uses for county government, whose existence must be preserved so that it might undertake these jobs if someone, for instance the towns or their taxpayers, asked it to do so. A corollary of this second viewpoint, ostensibly in a supporting role but actually the dominant feature of most discussions of how county government might be reinvigorated, has to do with what are called revenue streams. By revenue streams, many of the study commission members follow in the long tradition of the county commissioners themselves, who have repeatedly and desperately argued that the county could do great things for the towns and the taxpayers, or at least do more expansively what it already does, if it could only just pick a taxpayer's pocket or two and strengthen the revenue streams on which the county depends.
Let's consider these two views. The county has assets, it's true. The bulk of its asset base is the airport, worth somewhere between $30 million and $80 million, maybe more. But then there's the jail, the courthouse, some beaches, some buildable land. Assets are assets, because they are valuable and may yield net dollars when they are liquidated. Some assets also earn money for their owners, so they are not only valuable if sold but valuable because income, one hopes in amounts greater than the costs the asset generates, results from their use. Alas, the airport generates big income, but airport revenue and indeed the use of the airport and its surrounding, airport-owned land, are dedicated to the improvement and operation of the airport in the public's interest. You can't use airport land or airport income for any other purpose. It's an asset whose ownership is narrowly limited, wisely enough, so that it may support its ongoing and valuable operations free from predation, even by its owners.
Similarly, the courthouse, which is owned by the county and operated by the state. Of course, the lovely, antique courthouse is too small for court functions, so county government has moved out of it to its own building on airport property, where it pays rent to the airport, and of course, the courthouse is badly in need of rejuvenation, perhaps to the tune of millions. So, it's an asset, but one that may be too expensive to own, that is without a hugely inflated revenue stream. Ditto, though on slightly different terms, the jail.
As to the second view, it may be that with a refreshed county government in place, the towns will suddenly become regional services-minded, but the judgment here is that such thinking is quaint, wishful, and unlikely. It isn't that providing some services regionally never makes sense. Rather, the question is whether mounting such services on an administratively expensive, employee-rich layer of government makes more sense than letting the towns, individually and in ad hoc cooperatives, do, with volunteer leadership and administration, the multi-town tasks they regard as necessary. And then carefully, as towns can do, pay for these initiatives directly, avoiding an intermediary government layer. The charter study commission might do well to explore a cost and efficiency analysis of these two approaches to regional services, rather than worrying first, and inappropriately in light of the commission's mandate, about buttressing the county revenue stream.