County Government

He conducts his business in the basement of Berkshire County’s Silvio O. Conte Superior Court House: down the stairs, past the snack machine, and off to the right. Step over the boxes and stacks of papers that line his office floor, spill from half-opened filing cabinets, and encroach upon the voter lists, grocery coupons, newspaper clippings, and fresh letters-to-the-editor that clutter his desk.

Here you will find Peter G. Arlos, Berkshire County Treasurer, manager of the county’s $42 million pension fund, and executor of the county’s $5 million budget. Besides checks, Arlos dispenses political advice, insider gossip, and plain information most weekdays starting at 11 a.m.

“He doesn’t lift a finger, doesn’t handle people right,” Arlos barks gruffly into his telephone to a caller he later reveals to be a beleaguered county commissioner. “There’s an old Irish saying, ‘Too clever by half.’ He’s so smart he’s outwitting himself.” Arlos, winking, won’t say what the conversation is about.

An impassioned orator with the cadence of a car salesman, Arlos, 70, has probably held more elected positions than anyone in Berkshire County. He served a stint as a county commissioner with the father of one of the current commission’s most senior members; he chaired the Pittsfield Democratic City Committee in the early 1960s; and for 26 years he has been a regular rabble-rouser on the Pittsfield City Council. His tenure as treasurer is now at 13 years. Arlos insists the $38,500-a-year position is a “very demanding job.” The characteristically blunt treasurer doesn’t think much of state legislators and the selectmen in the county who have recently been airing proposals that would do away with county government, and eventually with Arlos.

“Every time you try to do something they undermine you,” he explains.

Arlos believes the county, which now primarily runs three registries of deeds, a county retirement board, and maintains the state and local courthouses, is doing just fine as it is.

Two blocks from where Arlos sits, a different perspective on the future and function of county government prevails. It is a point of view that seems to be gaining support across the state as budget calamities, allegations of corruption, and just plain mismanagement have undermined county government.

“I don’t think there is a lot of support to keep the current county government without determining at least what they do,” says Edward M. Reilly, mayor of Pittsfield, the largest of Berkshire County’s two cities. Reilly could be speaking for any number of Massachusetts mayors or selectmen when he argues that county government is pretty much obsolete. Reilly and members of the Berkshire County Advisory Board, a budget watchdog group, are tired of paying the county a total of $690,000 each year, money they insist could be put to better use.

Berkshire County, considered an exemplary case by many, seems more a model of mediocrity. A weed harvesting program for local lakes, a small survey department, an employee health insurance program, a few emergency service operators, and an employee pension plan–these are the cornerstones of the county’s service initiatives. The county’s collective purchasing efforts are a bust because local officials claim they get better prices than the county does for supplies. The annual cost of running county government in Berkshire County includes $138,213 for three part-time county commissioners and staff, and $153,510 for Arlos and his three full-time assistants.

One hundred miles east of Pittsfield, the latest and largest symbol of county government’s excess and incompetence–Middlesex County–gave critics a reason to exult when it defaulted on $4.5 million worth of bond notes in December. The fiscal crisis has renewed legislative debate over the future of counties and heightened fears that the state may have no choice but to step in.

In Berkshire County, Reilly is wasting no time. He is lobbying lawmakers to permit Pittsfield to keep the $250,000 in local aid which now goes directly to the county. Members of the county’s advisory board have adopted essentially the same stance. When commissioners invited them to discuss the future of the county recently, the meeting was tense.

Commissioners began by trying to elaborate on an admittedly short list of services the county offers, but ended up complaining about potential county revenue, such as certain funds generated by the registry of deeds, which are sent straight to Boston.

“Every year we feel like we are shortchanged by a great deal of things,” Commissioner Paul R. Babeu, of North Adams, said. “There are a lot of good things we could do, but we are limited.” Local officials were not satisfied by the explanation.

“Nothing is being accomplished,” countered Great Barrington Selectman Edward Morehouse, a regular county critic. “We don’t know what you are doing. The only time we see you is when you have a budget” to be approved. But even those who contend the county doesn’t do much say most towns would benefit from regional services, like trash pickup and county inspectors.

Even in rural strongholds county bureaucrats are under fire.

Arlos and his Berkshire County colleagues may have a point when they complain about the way in which they are treated by the Commonwealth. The state occupies county courthouses, failing most years to pay its rent in full because the sum is subject to the Legislature’s appropriations process. As a consequence, county officials argue they don’t have the money to make needed repairs. In 1996, the state handed Berkshire County $350,000 of the $430,000 it had previously agreed to pay for use of the county’s three court buildings. Angry that state judicial officials were late in submitting their quarterly rent payments this summer, county commissioners turned off air conditioning in the courthouses and judges were forced to sweat through the hottest month of the year.

A Gradual Erosion

In Massachusetts, where the ubiquitous town meeting still reigns, county government never flourished as it did in other parts of the country, even though the historical roots of county government go back to the 1643, when Middlesex and Essex became two of the first colonial counties.

In other parts of the United States, counties have expanded into multi-purpose municipal entities. Dade County, Florida, with an annual budget of $1.5 billion, dispenses welfare payments and has its own police force. The school system run by Fairfax County, Virginia, is the largest in the state. And yet while “regional government” has become a buzzword in some parts of the country, New England remains the stronghold of town and city government.

For the last two decades especially, the Massachusetts Legislature has weakened county government by gradually eroding the revenue that once allowed counties to offer numerous services and thousands of jobs. Meanwhile, lax oversight of county finances and a general lack of concern over county performance have helped to transform county government at its worst into an outpost of petty graft and corruption, and at its best into a lazy and ineffective bureaucracy. Not all of the state’s 14 counties have been fiscal or administrative disasters. Franklin, Barnstable, the island county of Dukes, and to a lesser extent Norfolk County, routinely garner praise for the services they offer and the local backing they have earned. As a result, some proponents of restructuring county government advocate a “county-by-county approach”–one which would allow some counties to continue.

Even in its heyday–the 1970s–county government in Massachusetts existed at the whim of a benevolent master on Beacon Hill. Not surprisingly, when legislators had direct control over line-items in county budgets, county payrolls swelled to peak levels. It was at the helm of the House Committee on Counties that former House Speaker Charles Flaherty began his climb up the legislative ladder.

“The Legislature is not immune to having contributed to the demise of county government,” says Sen. Richard T. Moore, D-Uxbridge, who served with Flaherty on the House panel and now is vice chair of the Senate Committee on Counties. “When the Legislature controlled the counties’ budgets there was a certain amount of patronage. When we got out, we didn’t eliminate patronage.” It wasn’t unusual, according to Moore, for members to pencil their preferred candidates into county jobs.

In the flush days, counties provided services such as housing assistance and remedial education. County officials controlled appointments to the Parole Board, staffed trial courts run by local judges, had a say in how the sheriffs operated, and reaped the largesse that flowed as a result of a host of federal revenue sharing programs.

Responding to criticism that county government was spiraling out of control, in 1978 the Legislature passed the Court Reform Act, removing one of county government’s traditional functions: the administration of justice. Now the state would pay rent for use of courthouses, but would staff and run the facilities itself. District Attorneys, once local officials, became quasi-independent state employees. In 1981, legislators relinquished their budget-setting authority to the newly created advisory boards, and placed new caps on how much counties could spend. County commissioners could set budgets, based largely on projected revenues from the state, but the advisory boards had to approve them. A County Government Finance Review Board, run by the Executive Office of Administration and Finance, was convened in 1989 to review county spending. The new controls contributed to a dramatic reduction in county payrolls. In Middlesex County, for example, there were 1,216 employees in 1980, not including the sheriff’s department. By 1996, the number had dwindled to 383.

In contrast, the Legislature did little during this time to rein in the growing influence and power of county sheriffs, whose hiring more than doubled. Much of the money generated by an increase in the deeds excise tax in 1989 was used to pay for corrections. Many of the recent scandals tagged to “county government” have originated in sheriffs’ departments, yet sheriffs have continued to operate with scant oversight from county officials, or for that matter from state officials. (See accompanying story, page 49.)

When the Legislature ceded item-by-item control over county budgets, it relegated the House and Senate Committees on Counties to a legislative backwater. Seventeen bills, most of them grappling with issues like who has the power to appoint the Hopedale dog officer, passed through the committee and into law last session. Moore says he was persuaded to serve a stint as chairman largely because of the additional $7,500 the post earns him annually.

On Notice

“I think most people understand that county government as we know it, its days are numbered,” says Sen. Stanley C. Rosenberg, D-Amherst, Chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Rosenberg’s committee is expected to take the lead this year in crafting legislation restructuring, and in some cases dismantling, county governments. A number of factors, including the debt crisis in Middlesex County, have coalesced, prodding lawmakers to consider a topic they may have preferred to avoid. The proposals under discussion run the gamut, from bills that would phase out counties in lieu of lesser-funded regional service entities, to legislation that would eliminate county government altogether.

Last July the debate was pushed to the fore by Governor William Weld, who has made his disdain for county government a favorite part of his political platform.

Weld’s veto of a supplemental spending bill to provide $6.5 million to bail out three deficit-ridden counties set the stage. The House casually overrode the veto 154-1, but not until publicly taking all of county government to task and putting county officials on notice. Moreover, two six-month studies were authorized. The mandate: devise strategies for the transfer from county to state of corrections and registries of deeds. Legislators were tired of bailing out counties, which they had done 22 times over the past six years, costing an additional $25 million.

In January, Weld struck again, filing as his first major bill of the session legislation that would abolish counties and shift county functions to the state within a year and a half. Some Democrats have moved toward Weld’s position. It would be better for the state to step in now, they argue, than to wait until county debt climbs further.

“This in a way is like welfare reform,” says Sen. John D. O’Brien, D-Andover. “We’ve seen a system out of control and before you get to the question of savings there is a system of management and administration that has to be dealt with.”

But tackling the problems of Massachusetts’ 14 distinct counties may require more effort than some are acknowledging.

“It’s hard to construct a policy that recognizes the strengths and the weaknesses and the different experiences and the different levels of support that exist for county government,” House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran says. “To try to come up with a single, coherent policy out of the chaos will be a challenge for us.” Finneran acknowledges, however, that House members would probably vote to abolish counties if given the chance.

“To try to come up with a coherent policy out of the chaos will be a challenge for us,” says Speaker Finneran.

But Beacon Hill may prefer to dismantle county government brick-by-brick. One of the study commissions established by the Legislature is expected to call for the state takeover of all 21 registries of deeds July 1, a proposal most registrars (who would continue to be elected) support. Removing the registries would cut counties off from one of their most cost-effective and dependable funding sources. The registries generate $112 million a year in fees while costing $23 million to operate.

In an experiment of sorts, the Legislature last year granted officials from sparsely populated Franklin County permission to “reinvent” county government. The state will take the county’s jail and its registry of deeds, giving the county two years to restructure itself as a regional service provider, managed by an as-yet-to-be-determined form of government. More significantly, the state will give the new government the opportunity to maintain the annual assessment the county now collects from towns. While the move was hailed in some quarters as a bold new test case on the future of regional government in Massachusetts, the largely rural Franklin County, wedged between Berkshire and Hampshire counties, is unique. (See story, page 44.)

Dire Straits

It may be that the most extreme example of county government run amok will ultimately shape this debate.

Middlesex County’s December 13 default on a $4.5 million bond for its county hospital provoked legislators to take a fresh look at whether counties should be eliminated. It was not the first time a hospital had been a cause of county debt problems: The closure of Worcester Hospital left that county nearly $10 million in debt, much of it to cover unfunded pensions.

Middlesex County borrowed the money in an effort to keep the hospital, a debt-ridden chronic-care facility that once cared for tuberculosis patients, functioning while commissioners scrambled to sell it. Commissioners, who also serve as the board of directors for the hospital, found a buyer but a court-mounted zoning challenge delayed the final purchase, pushing the county into default. State officials refused to authorize an eleventh-hour bailout, arguing that county officials had known the default was coming and had not taken the proper steps to prevent it from occurring. Francis X. Flaherty, chairman of the commissioners, said the county had little choice. “If it [the default] happened to the state the state would just get the money to pay off the loan and then raise the tax on tobacco,” Flaherty said. “We can’t do that.”

The hospital was sold, netting the county about $4 million, hours before it was slated to shut its doors for good on December 31. After the sale, Middlesex County still carried an estimated $15 million in unpaid liabilities and bills.

Several questionable management decisions have played into the Middlesex meltdown, and have led to damaging headlines. Between 1994 and 1996, according to Lowell’s Sun newspaper, the administrator of the county’s health plan billed retirees for more than $400,000 worth of unneeded retirement insurance, personally earning himself $50,000 in commissions. Such allegations have been coming to light for more than two decades. In 1974, a county commissioner named Paul Tsongas made criticism of county graft a cornerstone of his campaign for Congress.

Hal Schreiber of Westford, a member of the county advisory board, says the periodic scandals have led advisory board members to devise their own plan to eliminate the county.

“County government is not functioning, it is archaic, it is full of patronage, it is inefficient, and people are complaining all over the place,” Schreiber says. “Besides, if you got rid of them nobody would know the difference, because they aren’t doing anything anyway.” Schreiber wrote a proposal that would replace commissioners with a professional administrator who would report to a board of county representatives and a nine-member executive committee. Now Schreiber thinks his own bill may not go far enough and he is backing a proposal by Rep. Jim Marzilli, D-Arlington, that would eliminate Middlesex County altogether. Schreiber opposes plans that would replace the county with a regional government.

“If Dunstable and Groton want to get together and buy a street sweeper, they don’t need someone else to tell them to do that,” he says.

Who’s in Charge?

On a frigid November afternoon shortly before Middlesex County’s latest controversy erupted, Commissioner Edward Kennedy is relishing the fact that he will no longer have to sit through the two-hour commission meetings every Tuesday. After eight years, the Lowell real estate appraiser and former city councilor says he is relieved to be retiring from the troubles of Middlesex County government.

“I don’t mind that I’m not coming back,” the silver-haired Kennedy, clad in chinos, loafers, and a striped Ralph Lauren oxford, says with a sigh.

The commissioners each receive $22,000 a year, for a job, Kennedy says “is whatever you want to give it for time.” Some of the commissioners stop by the office for a few afternoons each week, others mainly just show up for the weekly meetings. To assist the part-time commissioners with their duties, the office employs eight people, including a personal assistant for each commissioner.

When he found himself the odd-man-out his last year on the commission, Kennedy made a point of opposing almost everything that came before the panel. He railed about the hospital’s growing debt. He opposed patronage hires at the jail. Now that his commission career is over, he is blunt about his misgivings.

“What Middlesex County should have been doing over the last ten years is retooling, making itself more responsive to the needs of towns and cities.”

Kennedy lays the blame for many of the problems of county government on the culture of the institution. “We’ve had people actually say ‘I didn’t think I’d have to work when I took this job,”’ he said of the county’s patronage hires, who must be approved by commissioners. “They end up having no appreciation for the job because somebody got the job for them.”

“You have this little corps of county leeches.”

“You have this little corps of county leeches,” says former commissioner Kennedy.

Is the End at Hand?

The irony of the push to abolish county government is that it comes at a time when much of the rest of the nation is looking for ways to decentralize government–to bring it closer to the local level. What is now in motion in Massachusetts is not “devolution,” but a drive to put regional responsibilities into the hands of state government. But if county governments have not been useful and accountable, what is the alternative?

In practical terms, eliminating county government is a complicated proposition. The most pressing question: Who pays? Who pays for the estimated $45 million in total debt and $125 million in unfunded pension liabilities some counties are carrying?

Under Weld’s proposal the state would assume all the assets and liabilities of counties in the event of a takeover, but the governor is silent on just how the state would find the money to pay for a transfer. The bill would discontinue the assessment cities and towns now pay “unless it is needed to pay off outstanding debt.” Says Weld spokesman Jose Juves, “it was left kind of vague on purpose.” The governor, it seems, would like legislators to have to perform the unpleasant task of finding a way to retire county debt.

Several plans circulating among legislators would require towns and cities to pay down their county’s remaining debts through a “county tax” equal to the one they now pay for the county assessment. The proposal has some county officials and advisory board members crying foul, as such a plan would probably pull the funding out from under any future attempts at regional government.

Even some of the most insistent county critics will admit that towns and cities may require more than just local government and state government. They also know, however, that the Franklin County model may not be replicable in other counties, even in those that might benefit from regional cooperation. These are places where the heating oil company may not want to make the 45-minute drive to deliver fuel to a few homes, or where (as in Barnstable County on the Cape) a strong regional planning commission is needed to help manage development.

Still, some county government critics worry that creating another bureaucracy might not be the solution.

“Regional government is county government looking for something to do,” says Middlesex County’s Schreiber. “It’s bureaucracy looking for a job.”

Geoffrey C. Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, agrees. “I’m very hesitant to suggest to any community that they should form another level of government,” Beckwith says. “Because counties do not facilitate regional cooperation. In most instances they hinder it.” In some instances, though, communities have sought greater cooperation on their own.

At the urging of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, in 1995 the Legislature created the Greater Boston Regionalization Commission to explore whether Boston might provide services like police, purchasing and assessing to smaller surrounding towns and cities. In another example, the towns of Norfolk and Wrentham (in Norfolk County) share a police station that straddles the two towns’ border.

Regional government works best when it is organized around a single set of issues, such as transportation or economic development, says David Osborne, author of the noted book Reinventing Government. Osborne is skeptical, despite the chorus emanating from Beacon Hill, that counties will be restructured. Politics, he notes, can be a great immobilizer.

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“It is really hard to go in and reorganize, which means taking power from some entities like counties, so we tend to ad-hoc it,” Osborne says. “In an ideal world you would do away with counties and move to regional government. In a real world–it will never happen.”

Maybe it won’t. But this year at least, some change seems inevitable.