Tad Crawford, a member of the Dukes County Charter Study Commission, defined the problem precisely.
"I don't see how we can do anything but see what's happening as a failure of government," Mr. Crawford told the county commissioners Friday. "You're in effect cutting your reason for being. That's dangerous."
Mr. Crawford's comment addressed the hapless county budget balancing efforts. The first draft of the budget is $179,000 out of whack, and the commissioners have taken several poorly reasoned steps to bridge the gap.
To begin with, they have increased the $60,000 starting salary for the next county manager - a manager of next to nothing at all - by $15,000. That means that the total cost of the county manager's office, by itself, will consume nearly a quarter of the entire county tax levied upon the seven Dukes County towns.
Next, the county commissioners decided that because they are unable to fund and manage the few county functions remaining under their authority - and uncertain themselves, as Dukes County voters are, as to whether the county should be doing even these few tasks - they will ask taxpayers in the six Island towns to pay more than the county is permitted to levy, if voters want these services to continue under county management. Mr. Crawford, a study commission member more inclined to redesign than extinguish county government, generously understated the situation when he said, "That's dangerous." One hopes it may be mortal.
Then, the county commissioners chose to shift $90,000 from a reserve fund to help balance the spending plan, a move the county finance advisory board asked the commissioners not to make. The commissioners' action depleted the reserve fund, a set-aside for emergencies, by nearly half.
Continuing, the county commissioners then slashed funding 50 percent for the county's health access and rodent control programs. If the towns want to pony up some more money to keep these programs going, fine. If not, so it goes. The access program operates under the county auspices but entirely under its own management. The rodent control program is a county-run program with offices in the county office building and management by the county rodent control officer. The rodent control officer reports to the county manager, who certainly has a lot of time to hear the reports, in light of his otherwise nearly empty management calendar.
The bottom line? It's business as usual for a county government that has no firm fix on its reason for being. The county theory is that as long as it is in business, it will use whatever resources it may command to keep itself in business. Its business is to stay in business.
For the Dukes County charter study commission, after all these months of research and discussions, the key questions remain unchanged and unanswered. They are: What is the mission of county government? and, Is this extra layer of government the most efficient tool to accomplish the cross-town initiatives voters and taxpayers in the six towns may want and need.