Holding the Sheriff Accountable

If the state takes over the Dukes County sheriff’s department — and it appears that this will eventually be the case — Islanders likely will not notice the difference. The Edgartown house of correction will still be run as the local jail and the communications center, which is so integral to the Island emergency response system, will remain the same.

What will change is the sheriff will become more accountable for his budget. This is long overdue.

For as long as anyone can remember, the sheriff’s budget has been far from transparent. Funding for the budget comes from three sources: the state, the county and the real estate deeds excise tax fund. Last year the sheriff spent about three million dollars, but it is more a pay-as-you-go system than a real budget.

Ordinarily budgets are prepared at the beginning of the year with reasonable expense estimates lined up against projected income. But this is not how budgets are done for the handful of sheriff departments remaining in the commonwealth.

The sheriffs operate their departments and money comes in at various times throughout the year to help pay the bills. About two thirds of the way through the year a state committee divides up county deeds excise tax money for use by the sheriffs in their respective counties.

“The best way to have an operation is you submit a budget and you have to live with it — the sheriffs don’t work that way. We need to fix the system,” said Cape and Islands Sen. Robert O’Leary.

Senator O’Leary is right, and he is also right to back the state Secretary of Administration and Finance who wants to clean up the sheriffs’ budgets and make them accountable.

A late amendment to the state budget which would do just that has failed in the House; Senator O’Leary said he will do what he can to put something in on the Senate side although he admits it has little chance of passage. He also agrees that fixing the problem through the state budget is the wrong way to do it.

But the problem must be fixed — and if that means a state takeover of the sheriff’s department, then that’s okay. Independence for the sheriff should not come at the expense of accountability.