Dukes County sheriff Michael McCormack is staking out his opposition to a draft bill from Gov. Deval Patrick that threatens to take over the seven county sheriff departments which still operate independently of the state.
Under the governor’s proposal, which is part of his recently released budget plan for fiscal year 2009, the state would assume the costs of payroll, health and retirement for the sheriff departments. The 44 employees in the Dukes County sheriff’s department, including the sheriff, would become state employees. The state would also take over the county house of correction in Edgartown. The bill does not explicitly say whether the state would also take over other property currently occupied by the sheriff, including his office in the county courthouse, the communication center at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport and the community corrections center, although Sheriff McCormack believes that they will.
Funding for the sheriff’s budget comes from three sources: town assessments, deeds excise taxes and state appropriations. The sheriff’s annual budget runs around $3.3 million. The proposed budget for the coming fiscal year is projected to be $3.6 million.
Each year, the sheriff submits a budget to a state review board for approval, a process which in past years has meant the sheriff does not receive state funding until a month or two after the fiscal year begins.
“It puts a restraint on the sheriff for planning purposes,” Sheriff McCormack said in a meeting with the Dukes County Commission earlier this month. “We have no ability to plan ahead or look to increase our services.”
The sheriff’s work includes, among other things, operating the jail and the Islandwide communications center and running the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program in the elementary schools. According to Sheriff McCormack, these services will be unaffected by the bill.
The governor’s plan calls for eliminating the town assessments, a move which his office has said will save the seven commonwealth towns an estimated $10 million. But members of the county commission recently expressed skepticism at the idea.
“I find it hard to believe the cost to the towns just goes away and the state takes it on,” said county commissioner Carlene Gatting during the meeting with the sheriff. Commission chairman Leslie Leland agreed. “Somebody’s going to pay and the state is not all that well off financially either,” he said.
County treasurer Noreen Mavro Flanders agreed. “Nobody’s going to save money,” she said by telephone. “I don’t care how you slice it, the function has got to be paid for and it will come from the citizens of Massachusetts.”
Cape and Islands Rep. Eric T. Turkington said he is reserving judgment on the proposal until he can speak directly with county employees. He said he has spoken with Sen. Robert O’Leary on the issue, who shares his opinion. “If it disadvantages any of our three counties financially, we’re against it,” Representative Turkington said. Senator O’Leary will host a meeting Monday for the county commissions, treasurers and sheriffs of Dukes, Barnstable and Nantucket Counties in Barnstable to discuss the bill. Mr. Turkington will also be present.
According to Ms. Mavro Flanders, the Suffolk and Nantucket county sheriffs are opposed to the draft bill, Barnstable and Plymouth county sheriffs are in favor and Norfolk and Bristol county sheriffs are undecided. Sheriff McCormack has been in communication with each sheriff and is trying to formulate an alternative to the state plan.
The draft bill comes at a time when county government itself is under intense scrutiny on the Island. The Dukes County Charter Study group is nearing the end of an 18-month study of county government. The county commission is currently seeking to fill the position of county manager, which has been vacant since August, and has recently proposed slashing funding in the coming fiscal year to three county programs due to ongoing budget constraints. The loss of a county sheriff would be one more blow to county government. “If the sheriffs were taken out of the county, it may be the beginning of the end of county government,” Sheriff McCormack said. The commission echoed his fear. “How much time do we have to prepare our list of concerns,” asked commissioner Leonard Jason, Jr. “Your time frame is now,” the sheriff replied.
Historically, the words sheriff and county are linked. Derived from the Anglo Saxon term shire’s reeve, sheriff was the name given to the representative of the king in the shire or county, the official charged with enforcing royal laws and orders.
Sheriff McCormack is unwavering in his support of county government. “As long as I’m sheriff,” he said, “I’m committed to county government and the services I provide to the county. I am very much in favor of the preservation of county government.”