Sheriff, county question state takeover plan
After meeting with state officials working out the details of Governor Deval Patrick's proposal for a state takeover of county sheriff operations, property, and personnel, Dukes County Sheriff Michael McCormack said he opposes the legislation, and is working to secure support for an alternative proposal.
Sheriff McCormack said the current version of the bill leaves many questions unanswered. "I would suggest that you put together a list of concerns today, as soon as possible," he told the county commissioners in a meeting Friday. "You're time frame is now."
Commission chairman Leslie Leland of West Tisbury is concerned that state authorities are not aware of how a state takeover would affect local communities. "There's a rush to get this passed," he said. "They have really not looked at the issues that are unique to this Island."
The Patrick administration is working to pass the legislation before the 2009 fiscal year, which begins on July 1.
Mr. McCormack told the commissioners there appears to be considerable support among other sheriffs for the legislation. He is trying to build a consensus for an alternative proposal that will change state laws to keep county operations local, but shift the budgeting process and responsibility to a line item in the state budget.
County commissioners also want to explore sponsoring separate legislation that would exempt Dukes County from the state takeover.
One effect of a shift from the county to the state would be changes in benefits for county employees. In general, current health benefits for state employees are more limited in scope, and more expensive for employees, according to acting county manager Noreen Mavro Flanders. Currently, the county pays 90 percent of the cost of health insurance for county employees.
Local officials are concerned about how the legislation would affect the communications center, which handles emergency calls and dispatches all Island public safety agencies.
Sheriff McCormack said he does not fear a negative impact. He said if the bill does become law, the employees, the functions, and the property would likely transfer to the state, but the sheriff would still have control over operating the communications center. He also said he is not concerned about how the legislation might affect efforts to build a new jail/house of correction on the Island.
An evaluation of statewide needs for new correctional institutions is underway, according to Mr. McCormack, and he expects some guidance before the end of this year about whether the Commonwealth will agree to build a new jail.
The sheriff said his request to build a new facility to replace the Dukes County Jail, which was built in 1873, is being evaluated as part of the state's study. "I'm waiting to see where we are on their list of priorities," he said. "It's a planning study that has to take place prior to construction. The governor has hired a consultant who is currently holding monthly meetings. At the end of 2008 [the consultant] will come up with a report that weighs out the needs for the Commonwealth, and prioritizes the needs."
If the bill calling for a state takeover of county sheriff operations is passed as written, responsibility for siting any new correctional facility would rest with the state. A site on Martha's Vineyard Airport property was designated after a prolonged political clash among airport commissioners and county commissioners beginning in 2003.
Mark Villa, then the airport commission chairman, resisted siting the jail on land near the airfield known as the northeast quadrant, telling county officials the FAA would never approve the project because it was designated for aeronautical use.
County commissioners appointed four new members favorable to the county's plan to the airport commission, and did not renew Mr. Villa's appointment. After months of wrangling, airport commissioners and county commissioners agreed on a new site, on the southwest corner of the property behind the Outerland nightclub, on land not designated for aeronautical use.
That site is now included in the Airport's master plan, though inclusion in the plan is not a commitment or an obligation to construct a jail there.
If the state inherits responsibility for siting a new jail, Sheriff McCormack said the airport site is the most likely location. "It's either the current site, or the airport site," he said. "Those are the only two viable sites. The current site quite frankly is no longer viable. It's at the gateway to historic downtown Edgartown. It's in a neighborhood. The neighborhood grew up around it.
The sheriff said he sees no downside in negotiating with state officials to site the jail on airport property. "The commonwealth would have some sort of conversation with the county and the airport commissioners," he said. "If in fact it was built on airport property, there would have to be some compensation. The commonwealth would buy it, or they would get a lease." The state would fund the construction either way, he added.
One early conceptual plan recommended by a jail task force study group called for a facility that covered approximately 45,000 square feet and could hold 79 inmates.