Governor seeks state takeover of county sheriffs
A bill attached to Governor Deval Patrick's proposed FY09 budget would transfer the county sheriffs' departments in seven counties to the state, effective July 1 of this year. The bill reads: "All functions, duties, responsibilities, property and employees of sheriffs in [seven counties] are hereby transferred to the commonwealth under this chapter, as if the governments of those counties had been abolished...."
Of interest to the taxpayers of Martha's Vineyard, funds now paid by the county toward the running of the sheriff's department (what the state calls "maintenance of effort") would, beginning in 2010, be paid by the state. In 2008, the county is paying approximately $517,000, more than a quarter of the total county budget of $1.9 million. The same sum will be paid in FY09, but not thereafter. Moreover, the bill requires that in 2010 the county reduce assessments to the towns by the amount previously paid in maintenance of effort. Whether the Sheriffs Bill turns out to be a half-million-dollar-per-year windfall or not depends on what happens in the legislative process.
When the Sheriffs Bill surfaced last week in an article in the Cape Cod Times (CCT), it caught most people by surprise. In telephone interviews, Dukes County Sheriff Michael McCormack, County Treasurer and acting County Manager Noreen Mavro Flanders, and Rep. Eric Turkington all had more questions than answers about the bill.
Representative Turkington told The Times that within the next month there will be a public hearing on the bill. "The governor gets to file a bill," Mr. Turkington said, " and the legislature gets to hear from those who want to know more."
Sheriff McCormack will meet today in Boston with other affected county sheriffs to discuss the details of the proposal. In the next three weeks, the sheriffs will also meet with the county finance review board and the chairman of the state ways and means committee.
Where the bill comes from
Sheriff McCormack told The Times that the sheriffs have been complaining for some years about the way county sheriffs are financed. "The budget process itself is broken," he said. Funds are distributed to the sheriffs' departments from several sources by the county financial review board (CFRB), he said. Sheriffs do not find out what their budgets will be until at least a quarter of the way into the fiscal year, and then the funds are always insufficient to complete the year, requiring a supplemental appropriation. The following year's budget is based on the original (insufficient) appropriation, so that the sheriffs are always running behind, handicapping their ability to make plans and contracts for ensuing years.
The Sheriffs Bill is a response by Governor Patrick's team. Under the bill, the sheriffs' budgets would not be distributed by the CFRB but would be a line item in the state budget. Sheriffs would know the fund is available in a timely way. Sheriffs' invoices would be paid by the state comptroller instead of the county treasurer.
An article in last week's Cape Cod Times (CCT) reported that Barnstable County Sheriff James Cummings is an enthusiastic supporter of the change. "It will make it much easier," CCT quoted Sheriff Cummings. "It will be much more transparent. It will all be right here. When I go to the legislators on the Cape, I can show what my budget is and say I want to increase it this much."
The Patriot Ledger quotes Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph McDonald, ''It's going to take the uncertainty out of the budget process. The certainty that it's going to give us as managers is very big, and the efficiencies that we realize by coming under the state system are going to be very real.''
However, Sheriff McCormack has not decided whether he is for or against the bill. He has several questions about the details. "That the administration has listened to our concerns and taken action is a positive thing," he said, "but it remains to be seen whether this is the proper action."
The devil is in the details
One question that neither Sheriff McCormack, Representative Turkington, nor Ms. Flanders knows the answer to is whether "property" in the bill includes "real property" (real estate). Will the state assume ownership of the jail in Edgartown and the communications center building at the airport? If not, will the state become tenants of the county in those buildings? Ms. Flanders points out that the state does not pay fair market rent for use of the county courthouse, but instead only a percentage of maintenance costs (always less than 100 percent). Mr. McCormack is even more pessimistic. Because the state will assume the maintenance of effort fees, he doubts that it will pay anything at all for the use of the county buildings.
The Sheriffs Bill may also have implications for the Dukes County Charter Study Commission. At last week's meeting, member and former county commissioner Dan Flynn, a proponent of abolishing county government altogether, read part of the bill and commented: "If the county loses the sheriff's department, what's left? There isn't an awful lot left for the county to do."
However, when told of Mr. Flynn's comment, Sheriff McCormack pointed out that the county commission doesn't manage the sheriff's department now.