As if they did not have enough to debate and decide before their 18-month mandate expires, members of the Dukes County Charter Study Commission must add to their long list of difficult questions new state legislation that would transfer to the state the county property, operations, and personnel that constitute the Dukes County Sheriff's Department and communications center.
Gov. Deval Patrick has proposed that the state take control of the few county-operated sheriff departments in the Commonwealth. Although his counterparts among county sheriffs seem to favor the governor's proposal, Dukes County Sheriff Michael McCormack does not. Nor do the Dukes County commissioners. Sheriff McCormack has urged the county commissioners to express their concerns to state legislators considering the matter.
The sheriff favors another approach, which would keep county operations local but shift the budgeting process and responsibility for it to a line item in the state budget. Or, perhaps there is a third way, under consideration by the county commissioners, which would propose separate legislation that would simply exempt Dukes County altogether.
County commission chairman Leslie Leland of West Tisbury has complained that state officials do not understand how a state takeover would affect local communities. But, Sheriff McCormack says he does not fear that the governor's proposal, if transformed into law, would compromise the operations of the Dukes County Communications Center. He does not worry, he says, that the need for or the siting of a new county jail would be very much altered. He approves the transfer of all budgeting responsibility to the state in the form of a line item in the state budget, as the governor wants. It would make the money supply for annual operations more predictable, he says.
At the same time, the sheriff, the county commissioners, and Dukes County employees are unenthusiastic about the provision of the governor's bill under which Dukes County employees would become state employees, resulting in changes in benefits for these county employees. In general, health benefits for state employees are more limited in scope and more expensive for employees, according to acting county manager Noreen Mavro Flanders, who is one of them. The Dukes County pays 90 percent of the cost of health insurance for county employees, while the state pays a lesser share.
Unknown and also of concern to county officials is the matter of whether, under the governor's proposal, the county would lose title to the real estate assets now controlled by the Dukes County Sheriff's Department, including the communications center; also, whether there would be compensation for these assets, either in an outright purchase by the state or pursuant to a lease. And, finally, it is unclear what the governor's plan would cost the county, or perhaps save it. For instance, would the cost of state- instead of county-furnished employee benefits lower costs to the county, or would the state's control contribute to inefficiencies that would ultimately increase costs for the very services we enjoy today.
For the charter study commission, the pending changes represent a state incursion that appears likely to strike from the county's portfolio of responsibilities one of the few over which they have some, but not much, meaningful control. Both current county leaders and those who are studying ways to change it must address the implications of the governor's plan.