Regionalization is a people to people business


Helping one another, at the family, social, and municipal levels, is understood and practiced, almost flawlessly, on Martha’s Vineyard. The Times’ Letters to the Editor columns remind us weekly of the good Samaritans among us, the generous neighbors, the open hearted business owners, the regiments of volunteers, the diligent and ever-ready emergency services, including police, volunteer firefighters, and harbormasters, the hospital ER, and the Red Cross. In all these ways, cooperation among us flourishes. Town boundaries do not hinder neighborly impulses. One cannot argue that all of this occurs with seamless, economic efficiency, but acting as one Island community in all these ways is something of which we are proud. We understand how cooperation works, we count on it, and we do it.

Watching since the early 1970s the repeated public debates over expanding the limited, informal, and ad hoc regional structure, this editor’s best judgment is that the attitude that has predominated among Islanders has been skepticism. Many of us — including me — have been more enthusiastic about regional approaches at some times than at others, but on balance the conclusion is that, while real advantages — mainly, and with considerable justification, financial — appear possible, real disincentives are more persuasive.

Why is that? At its core, the antipathy for structural regional solutions to problems that cross town boundaries arises from pure, democratic common sense. Voters and taxpayers believe they have the best chance to control public agencies that are closest to them. Town voters elect selectmen, vote on town budgets at town meeting, and they know who’s who on town boards. To succeed, these officials, voters realize, must focus their efforts on the circumscribed affairs of one small town. When elected or appointed officials serve on broader based agencies — the Dukes County government or the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, for example — the portfolio becomes more diverse, the officials are more distracted, the decisions involve more compromise, and the lines of authority from voter to official are attenuated.

Town governments are also important economic forces. Their payrolls and benefits support families. Maintaining close, influential ties to municipal leaders and the decisions they make protects those valuable jobs. Voters know on which side their bread is buttered.

As we reported last week, the six towns spend nearly $70 million to support municipal and regional services today, including education. The University of Massachusetts report on the delivery of municipal and regional services highlighted possible regionalization opportunities. But the report was wisely modest in its suggestions, and its researchers emphasized the need for competent apparatus for attempting regionalization initiatives. And that makes eminent good sense, because keeping the people who administer regional spending on a short tether is smart. The annual discussion of town budgets, tax rates, and property values confirms voters’ understanding of how government works best. They like having the last and most important say.

Plus, we know that roughly half of all the money spent at each spring town meeting will be paid by property owners who don’t live here year-round and contribute little demand for government services. In some towns — Tisbury for instance — officials, aware that seasonal property owners cannot vote, have no compunction about shifting even more of the tax burden from year-round residents to summer neighbors. Voters don’t want any of that burden-shifting, in the regional context, to shift the weight from another town’s taxpayers to them.

But more important still is the experience we’ve had with the limited regionalized services that exist. That experience is disappointing. Consider Dukes County government, the most comprehensive regional government agency whose decisions affect residents of all six towns. It is comprehensive because it appears to have responsibility for such varied services as law enforcement, health, air travel, ferry travel, pest control, beach management, and more. If Dukes County had such significant responsibilities, its decisions and management would certainly affect the towns. But it does not.

The airport, thankfully, operates under the control of an ad hoc board, subject to strict state and federal oversight. The sheriff’s department and the courts operate under state control. The county-owned beaches, thankfully, are managed under contracts with nonprofits that know how to manage. The Steamship Authority operates under a state charter. Nevertheless, recently, after nearly two years of study, Dukes County’s charter has been reconfirmed, even as Dukes County’s services have been pared from its meaningless core. Whatever important roles it might have played in our lives no longer exist. Nor are the towns likely to look for ways to re-engage the county in their affairs.

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission, an imposed structure created by state government and embraced here in 1974 to ward off even more remote intrusion by the federal government, has contributed to a layering of regulatory miasma that most Islanders do their best to ignore or evade.

In sum, the experience has been that, absent the sort of ad hoc competence and independence we find at such organizations as the Land Bank, the airport, the two volunteer-run solid waste management programs, or among municipal professionals who forge informal, useful, efficient, cooperative arrangements with their counterparts in other towns, the prospects for regionalized organization of government services remain as dim as they’ve ever been.