Tough job ahead
Edgartown voters face several troublesome questions at their special town meeting March 6. Near the head of the list are requests for unusual, off-budget contributions by town taxpayers to the county. The county, faced with a budget shortfall, has chosen a woebegone sort of political extortion to plump up its spending ability. It wants the towns to agree to pay a share of the costs of the county engineer, the county rodent control program, and the county-sponsored health care access program. Or else.
County government, under review by the Dukes County Charter Study Commission after years of costly inefficiencies and outright policy failures, is at a crossroads. The study commission appears unlikely to ask voters to scrap this superfluous layer of government, despite the ongoing costs of maintaining it on life support in its longstanding vegetative state. But the 18-month study will yield some recommendations for modifications in the way the county operates. These suggestions may include a suggestion that voters retreat from the paid, professional county manager form of government, which was born in the 1992 charter study that gave rise to county government as we know it today. (By the way, there is no current county manager, although the county commissioners have voted to increase the pay of a new manager should they hire one.) Scrapping the county manager form might yield a savings of more than $100,000 annually, taking into account the all-in costs of the manager's office, including benefits and assistance.
Then there is the uncertainty attached to a legislative proposal by Gov. Deval Patrick that would make the county sheriff's department and the county communications center, including all the employees of both, part of state, rather than county, government. Will the governor's proposal cost the county more or less? Will it mean the expropriation without compensation of county real assets? The legislation's chances of enactment are unclear.
With the study commission's recommendations due within weeks and the future of the governor's bill a mystery, Edgartown voters, next among the Island towns to have a bite at this unripe apple, must attempt to make sense of all this. Will the county really let these programs lapse, voters must ask themselves? How badly do we need a rodent program? A county engineer cum occasional parking ticket writer? (By the way, there is no county engineer at the moment.) Or, a health-care access program? About the latter, of course, there is no question of the program's value, but there are questions about how it should be funded and overseen.
As for the health-care access program, a vital service that has succeeded mostly on its own, with only minimal financial help and no useful oversight by its nominal county sponsor, the fundamental question may be whether something this important belongs in the county's portfolio at all, or whether the towns acting together and independently of the county could fund and oversee it more efficiently.
It's hardly fair to face Edgartown voters with this nest of complications over county services, the responsibility for which the county is attempting to slough off. But, there it is. And, it may be that the good sense of Edgartown voters will find a way through this swamp and help lead voters in the other five towns, who will face these questions in the spring.