Dukes County government is Martha’s Vineyard’s Northwest Passage. Believers in regional Island governance stumble along a path littered with the relics of failed county schemes, apparently convinced that they are heading in the right direction.

How else to explain why the seven elected county commissioners and the county advisory board, including a selectman from each town whose job is to ride herd over county spending decisions, signed off last month on a plan to charge a five per cent “administrative fee” on county social service programs funded by the towns.

Take the Vineyard Health Care Access Program, an invaluable resource for anyone wending his or her way through the health insurance maze. The county will siphon $17,592 from the $351,840 that the towns contribute. Six other social service programs will also feel the county bite in order to raise $62,960 to fill a county budget hole.

The funny part is that we have seen this scheme before. In 2001, the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital was running in the red. The six towns agreed to a $500,000 contract to fund emergency medical services, the only way to funnel tax dollars to the private nonprofit. The county-engineered inter-municipal agreement blew up when the towns learned that the county manager at the time had included a separate contract to skim a $49,500 fee to the county.

In May 2004, a different county manager concocted a plan to cover a budget shortfall by charging each of the seven Dukes County towns an amount in exchange for county administrative services.

These so called charge-backs ran into a wall of opposition from members of the advisory board. Back then, Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel said he would not support a general “let’s-get-money-for-the-county fee.” Now an elected county commissioner, he appears to have had a change of heart.

Watching the workings of county government is an acquired taste. It is niche MVTV cable programming. As with Duck Dynasty, it is not for everyone. But it is revealing.

If the county wanted to face the voters honestly it would ask voters to increase the county assessment. West Tisbury selectman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter 3rd made that argument to his fellow advisory board members at their March 13 meeting (available for viewing on MVTV).

“If the county needs to raise money to cover its own expenditures it should come from raising the assessment,” Mr. Manter said, “not a back door underhanded approach to raising the assessment that nobody knows is there.”

For the most part, barring the most boneheaded moves — like the time the county engineer (when there was a county engineer) put parking tickets on the windshields of vehicles parked facing in the wrong direction along State Beach — Islanders pay little attention to county government.

Dukes County, incorporated in 1695, got along fine for almost 300 years with three elected county commissioners and little appetite for regional aggrandizement. Heavy lifting was left to the town selectmen who cooperated when necessary.

At one time, Massachusetts had 14 county governments. Inefficiency, sloth, blatant patronage and occasionally corruption beyond that normally tolerated by state pols set the stage for former Gov. William Weld, who in 1997 began abolishing counties one by one.

With county-slayer Weld breathing down their necks, believers in Dukes County government reinvented it. Working under the terms of a new charter, in July 1995 the seven newly elected county commissioners winnowed 68 applicants and hired the first county manager at an annual salary of $52,000.

In less than two years, he had departed. Five county managers and 15 years later, in August 2012, assistant to the county manager Martina Thornton was named county manager at a salary of $67,709. Since then her salary has been hiked to $109,272. There is also an assistant to the county manager. In total, the two-person department of the county commissioners will cost $277,341 in the next fiscal year. The office of the county treasurer is budgeted at $287,449.

The administrative machinery of county government clanks along fueled by taxpayer dollars, mostly the town assessments ($504,032 in fiscal year 2020) which come right off the top and do not appear on town budgets. Increases in the assessment are limited to 2.5 per cent each year. More than that requires going to voters.

One must certainly ask why any money for social services should be siphoned off to cover administrative costs. Or as Mr. Manter put it, “We are assessing ourselves to run our own programs.”

Mr. Manter is correct. On town meeting floor voters ought to do what the county advisory board was unwilling to do, and block the county from attaching an administrative fee to the costs of social services.

Nelson Sigelman lives in Vineyard Haven.