Faced with a near-certain fiscal crisis due to pressure from state officials and political maneuverings on Beacon Hill, Dukes County Sheriff Michael McCormack has quietly agreed to trade his independence for a state takeover of his department.
Two weeks ago, Sheriff McCormack joined with the sheriffs of Barnstable, Norfolk and Plymouth counties to back an amendment to Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposed 2009 budget that would place the four sheriffs and their employees under control of the commonwealth.
The move directly contradicts earlier statements from the sheriff following the announcement by Governor Patrick in February that he wanted the state to take over the seven county sheriffs which still operate independently of the state.
At the time Sheriff McCormack went before the Dukes County Commission and the Dukes County Charter Study Commission to stand by his commitment to county government — which is under study and in a state of uncertainty.
This week the sheriff said he had no choice but to change his position.
“The situation has become dire. I am out of money,” Mr. McCormack said. “I feel as though I was sort of backed into a corner. My choices were exhausted.”
Under the proposed budget amendment, the state would assume the costs of payroll, health insurance and retirement for the county sheriff department. Sheriff McCormack and his staff would become state employees. The state would take over the Edgartown house of correction and other property currently occupied by the sheriff, including his office in the county courthouse, the communications center at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport and the community corrections center.
The sheriff would remain an elected official.
Reached at his office in Boston this week, Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington said the budget amendment has little chance of passage. “The amendment is unlikely to be adopted,” he said. “The policy of House Speaker Sal DiMasi has been not to enact legislation through the budget process and this is clearly an attempt to do that.”
Nearly identical to a draft bill Gov. Patrick submitted earlier this winter, the amendment is intended to address longstanding tensions between the county sheriffs and the state over funding their annual budgets.
The amendment includes language which keeps the sheriff as an elected official and protects the health benefits of employees in his department. It also gives an exact figure — $2.8 million — for the 2009 operating budget for the sheriff. In the past several years, the sheriff’s annual budget has hovered around $3.3 million.
At a public hearing on Beacon Hill on Governor Patrick’s draft bill in March, county sheriffs were divided. Following the hearing, the bill was sent to a committee for study, effectively killing it.
On April 1, Massachusetts Secretary of Administration and Finance Leslie Kirwan sent Sheriff McCormack a letter notifying him that the state could no longer provide any supplementary funding to county sheriffs. Supplementary funding from the state amounts to nearly $627,000, or 20 per cent of Sheriff McCormack’s annual budget.
“We’re virtually out of money. We have no money to operate after the end of the month,” Mr. McCormack said this week.
The sheriff continues to pay his employees but has stopped paying bills.
Mr. McCormack confirmed this week that county sheriffs met with Secretary Kirwan in Boston on April 9. “She basically said if you’re a county department, you need to turn to your county commissions if you’re out of money. But, if you’re a state agency, we might be able to provide some supplemental funding for you,” he said.
County commissioners, who are struggling to keep county government intact, reacted to the latest news with dismay.
“It seems like Secretary Kirwan was involved in earlier efforts to dissolve the counties and that she’s throwing down the gauntlet,” county commissioner Tristan Israel said during the commission’s regular meeting Wednesday night. In the early 1990s, Secretary Kirwan worked under former Gov. William F. Weld, who led an initiative to abolish county government in the commonwealth.
Secretary Kirwan was unavailable for comment this week. But a spokesman for the governor’s office said there is sound reasoning behind the state takeover plan. “This would make things more consistent and that is the impetus for folding them into the state system,” said Cyndi Roy.
Seven sheriffs in the commonwealth now operate under the control of the state.
“The bottom line is this is the way the state is trying to dismantle county government,” declared county commission chairman Leslie Leland this week. “Piecemeal, they’ll come in and take away the sheriff’s department, then they’ll go after the registry of deeds. It’s very obvious this secretary of finance and administration is anti-county and it’s a power play. It truly is and the county has been aggressively talking to the legislators up at the state house and saying, ‘Wait a minute. Let’s put the breaks on this and answer the questions that have been raised.’ We’re talking real property here, we’re talking unfunded liabilities. They don’t have the answers for it.”
Patricia Moore, acting chairman of the charter study commission, which is nearing the end of an 18-month study of county government, agreed. “There are some on the commission who believe that if the sheriff is transferred, that a major piece of the rationale for county government is transferred,” Mrs. Moore said.
The sheriff’s department employs 44 people, or 60 per cent of county employees.
Mrs. Moore said she was surprised to learn of the sheriff’s move. “This has to be opposed strenuously,” she said, adding: “There are steps to be taken to make clear that this doesn’t make sense to the community, to the Island.”
But Sheriff McCormack said if the amendment is approved, the impact to the Island community will be minimal. “As far as the community goes, there will be no visible change in the operation of the sheriff. All of the services, everything will continue to operate. To the general public, there will be a seamless transition,” he said.
Others disagreed. “It’s going to cause a real problem,” said county treasurer Noreen Mavro Flanders.
“It is the administration’s intent to take the assets, but leave the counties with the liabilities,” said county manager Russell Smith. Under the plan, the state would not pay the benefits for retirees of the sheriff’s department.
Ms. Mavro Flanders sided with Mr. Turkington’s doubtful view about the outcome. “In the end, I think it will be resolved,” she said.
Meanwhile, this week Sheriff McCormack sat in his office watching the televised public hearing on the governor’s budget. “I’ve come to the point where there are no other options at this point in time,” he said. “What was I supposed to do, stop answering 911 calls? Let all the inmates out? I didn’t want to do either of those things.”