Coronavirus Response Makes The Case for County Government in Massachusetts

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2021/05/12/coronavirus-response-makes-the-case-for-county-government-in-massachusetts/

Over the last century, Massachusetts has bucked national trends by moving away from county government. While county government prevails in over 45 states, the Commonwealth has doubled down on a model of local home rule and a strong, centralized state government — bypassing and, in the case of eight of the 14 counties, completely eliminating county government.

There are a multitude of advantages county government can provide, though, and Massachusetts may be missing out.

First, many services are costly to towns big and small that could be better served regionally, and county government can be just that vehicle to realize greater savings to our communities and, in the long run, the taxpayer.

One example:  Plymouth County, where I serve as an elected official, has one of the best-performing retirement systems in the state. (For a contrast, check out what has been happening with the retirement system in Hampden County — a county that has no county commissioners or treasurer. A state audit released in February 2021 reported evidence of payments for bogus invoices, exorbitant bank fees, questionable reimbursements for public officials, and providing of health insurance benefits to non-employees, among other things.)

The difference? Plymouth County has the oversight of the county’s elected treasurer, whereas Hampden County has no such oversight, because it lacks county government.

With the passage of the federal American Rescue Plan by Congress in February, state, county, and local governments again have been provided relief to fund critical responses to the global epidemic. While other parts of the bill are contentious, the additional funding for local and municipal governments to ensure they can provide proper equipment for our first responders and can make modifications to classrooms and other unplanned modifications was an enormous help to ensure that municipalities could fund COVID priorities without having to raise taxes.

Plymouth County government is proud of the role it has played in the initial Covid CARES Act of 2020 in making sure resources were allocated prudently and expeditiously to ensure our 27 member communities received funding for their critical priorities without delay. County government has responded to diverse needs — our members include towns like Pembroke and Hull, which differ in geography and demographics, but have both benefited from county government.

The county government has disbursed more than $29 million in federal funds to each of our 26 towns and to our one city (Brockton) These disbursements are voted on individually during open session meetings of the board of county commissioners to ensure a completely open and transparent distribution of funds to our communities as quickly as possible, being mindful of municipal finance deadlines.

We are proud to have been prudent stewards of this federal support, vetting each request thoroughly but aiming to achieve the law’s intent of rapidly supporting localities. Great credit for this achievement belongs to our volunteer town boards and committees and employees who submitted thoughtful and well-supported requests for aid, and our highly capable bipartisan leadership in the county: Democrats like County Treasurer Thomas O’Brien and County Commission Chairman Greg Hanley; and Republicans like my colleague Sandra Wright and former Commissioner Dan Pallotta.

For all of this success, it almost didn’t happen. Immediately after the passage of the first Covid Cares Act, the Baker Administration took exception to allowing county governments to receive federal funds to make the disbursements to constituent towns as opposed to keeping all federal funds in the hands of the state government. Agencies within state government publicly questioned Plymouth County’s ability to distribute these funds.

What was always ironic about the discontent with Plymouth County distributing its own share of funding was nobody seemed to bat an eye when the City of Boston kept its portion of federal funding, too.

But Plymouth County officials were confident in the ability to serve our communities, and the results speak for themselves. With nearly a year passed since these stern admonitions against county involvement, the results and accomplishments are evident. Plymouth County expeditiously delivered immediate support to our towns when they needed it most, ensuring compliance with federal regulations.

The state? It has hired several new employees to oversee the process of disbursement in the new Office of Federal Funding within the Massachusetts Executive Office of Administration and Finance. We are unsure of how much funds have been disbursed as it is not readily available to the public.

The county?  By visiting www.plymouthcountycares.com, you can see where every penny has gone, and how much funds are left per town in their soft caps. What we do know from talking to other communities across the state is that towns in Plymouth County have received 3 to 5 percent more funds than communities not in Plymouth County, and we have now become the envy of our neighboring communities. Furthermore, as of April 8, Plymouth County has used only 1 percent of the funds distributed so far in administrative costs — a number far below the national average.

The Commonwealth would be well advised to follow the lead of Plymouth County and better empower and trust counties and municipalities to address these funds at their level than await a never-ending deliberation of the state bureaucracy in Boston.

State legislators abolished most county governments around the late 1980s and early 1990s amid certain scandals, claiming that direct state oversight would be more efficient. But they did not, alas, abolish scandals in Massachusetts. And efficiency is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of state government in Massachusetts.

Plymouth County government is efficient, effective, and working hard every day to provide the very best services to the people and communities of Plymouth County. We are local, we are responsive. We are your neighbors and friends. It’s time to start looking towards re-establishing county government in Massachusetts.

 

Jared L. Valanzola, a Rockland resident, is a Plymouth County Commissioner. He is also Vice-Chairman of the Plymouth County Republican Club, Chairman of the Rockland Republican Town Committee, Massachusetts Young Republicans National Committeeman, and host of The JV Team with Jared Valanzola from 6:15 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays on 95.9 WATD-FM.

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